The NL Central is on my mind today as I get set to head off for a Wednesday afternoon matinee game in Milwaukee between the Brewers and Reds, as Zack Greinke takes the mound against Johnny Cueto. With the Reds’ ace getting the call, it’s an ideal time (well, at least for me, and I hope for you too) to take a look at the Cincinnati rotation. Because as the Reds sit 15-14, in second place and only 3 ½ back of first place, even after St. Louis’ blazing start, it’s the starting pitching that will determine if Dusty Baker’s team can make a real run at winning this division for the second time in three years. Here’s the rundown on what the five Reds’ starting pitchers are doing in 2012…
*Cueto is a Cy Young candidate—never mind that, he’s the Cy Young frontrunner. He’s 4-0 with a 1.31 ERA, and this while calling one of America’s friendliest hitters’ parks home. The only downside is that the ERA simply has to go up. But Cueto has been a rising star and now it’s time to get serious and think about him for pitching’s top individual honor.
*Bronson Arroyo has been up and down in his effectiveness over the years, but the big positive is that he always takes the ball every fifth day. This year he’s doing so to positive effect, with a 2.75 ERA that includes shutting down weak lineups in the Cubs and Brewers the last two times out.
*Mat Latos’ season numbers aren’t impressive, with a 4.93 ERA. But the park effects factor can mitigate some of that, and an even bigger factor is that the 24-year-old seems to be finding his rhythm. He threw six shutout innings his last time out and if he gets settled in, the Reds can be ready to take off.
*Homer Bailey’s ERA is the same 4.93, although that jacked up quite a bit last night when the Brewer offense scorched him. I’m not sure whether to cut Bailey a break because the ERA is disproportionate to one bad start this early in the year, or to wonder how he get ripped by an offense that’s fallen apart with injuries. Right now I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.
*Mike Leake has been inconsistent in the #5 spot at 5.17, so the nicest thing we can say is that most teams have problems are. Still, when you take this rotation as a whole you see very doable potential for a steady four-man group with one clear stopper at the top. That’s the formula for long-term success over the summer. It does require a few other factors, such as depth in the lineup and finding someone besides Aroldis Chapman who can get key outs in the late innings, but everything begins with the starting pitcher and by that standard, I think Baker has to feel good about where his team’s at right now.
Around the rest of the NL Central…
St. Louis (19-11): The offense is still churning out runs. As David Freese and Yadier Molina cooled down, Matt Holliday and Rafael Furcal heated up. But the pitching stumbled in recent games, with Jamie Garcia and Kyle Lohse both being hit hard over the weekend against Houston. The Cards bounced back and won two straight in Arizona this week going into tonight’s finale that will send them back home.
Houston (14-16): We talked a little bit last week about Houston’s young hitters coming through. But how about what the pitching did? Brad Norris threw six shutout innings at the St. Louis lineup in the weekend series where the Astros won two of three. Wandy Rodriguez went eight strong against a hot Miami team on Monday, and shut down the Mets prior. And 24-year-old Aneury Rodriguez made his first start of the year against the Marlins and gave up just two runs in six innings. If the Astros can get pitching, they’ll make an improbable run at .500.
Pittsburgh (13-16): Last week, TheSportsNotebook’s story last week was that Pittsburgh had a chance to make some hay in the standings with a homestand against beatable teams. They lost the first series to Cincinnati, but bounced back beating Washington last night, so the ultimate fate of this opportunity moment remains up in the air. Kudos to A.J. Burnett for a big eight-inning effort against the Nats, helping make up for a weekend where fellow starters Kevin Correia and Charlie Morton struggled against the Reds.
Milwaukee (13-17): In the last week Alex Gonzalez and Mat Gamel were each lost for the season with ACL tears, and the city had a brief scare when Ryan Braun suffered a tight hamstring. With nothing going well, the news that Braun is going to open a restaurant with Aaron Rodgers is about the biggest thing Milwaukee has to cheer right now.
Chi Cubs (12-18): How ‘bout the Cubbie pitching? Ryan Dempster’s unexpected strong start rolled with a dominating 7 IP/1 ER outing against an Atlanta team that had otherwise carved up opposing lineups. Jeff Samardizja may not have made a living catching the ball, as a former Notre Dame receiver, but he’s getting it done hurling the ball, with excellent outings against both the Reds and Braves. And Paul Maholm’s last three starts have been of the 6 IP/1E R variety. Now if only Carlos Marmol was consistent at the back end and the team scored an occasional run.