Cards, Reds battle in biggest baseball series in Cincy this century


Cincinnati was once the center of the baseball universe. The Big Red Machine was one of the best teams ever assembled. Its exploits are well-documented in baseball’s history. Sparky Anderson was at the controls and ended his career in the Hall of Fame. Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, and Tony Perez all joined him in Cooperstown and there was Pete Rose, too. The all-time hits king and crazy man was the leader who played with reckless abandon and played to win. The great players pushed each other higher and higher. And the Reds won back-to-back World Series in 1975 and 1976. Lou Piniella came along in 1990 and led Cincinnati to another. Since then, the city has been a dead baseball town. Ken Griffey, Jr.’s arrival at the beginning of the decade was exciting, but his actual time in the Reds uniform was a disappointment, muddled by injury.

In 2010, the city has life again. Baseball is fun and there’s nothing like a night at the ball park. The Reds have scratched and clawed for four months and the effort has landed them in first place with a two-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals.

In sports, we know it’s not about how you start, but about how you finish.

Tonight is the beginning of the stretch run for both clubs. And they can feel it. This isn’t just another series. This series is the biggest of the year, perhaps in all of baseball, and it’s a chance to make a statement. For the Reds, a sweep would give them a commanding five-game lead, but big leads haven’t been a theme in this division so don’t count on it. For the Cards, keeping…putting Cincinnati in its place is the goal, but these aren’t the usual Reds upstarts so don’t count on it. This Reds team is the real deal and the Cards have the horses.

So, what can you count on in this three-game set and for the rest of the season?

A hard-fought race to the finish full of drama, excitement, and frustration that only baseball can provide. Let’s set the scene for the “biggest baseball game played in Cincinnati in this millennium,” according to Baseball Prospectus. […]

The Great Race

Not only are these two teams battling for a division title, they’re also at the center of the National League MVP race. Joey Votto has been the leader of the MVP discussion since the All-Star break when he was originally not included. His candidacy only grew and he has continued to rake. Votto is batting .319 with 28 home runs, 75 RBI and leads the league with 79 runs scored. That’s quite a line. And for good measure he’s a fun, throwback player. The Reds first baseman is a competitive guy who doesn’t buy into the buddy-buddy culture of professional sports, so don’t expect him to bow down to Albert Pujols or run across the diamond to shake his hand this week. This series is as intense as it gets and the Reds need to take it to the Cards starting with batting practice. Pujols is the another candidate for the NL MVP along with Carlos Gonzalez and some others. Big surprise. It may not be surprising to see Pujols’ name among baseball’s best, but it’s impressive considering Pujols had a tough year by his standards! A recent hot streak when it matters most has Albert at the heart of the debate again. He is hitting .481 with four home runs in August. The surge has pushed his batting average to .311 to go with 28 home runs, a league-leading 82 RBI, and 71 runs scored. Pretty similar to Votto. So, who has the best chance to take home the award? That answer lies in which team wins the division, and therefore which player shines brightest when the lights are hottest. Like the race for the division, it starts tonight on ESPN.

The Greater Race

As exciting as the MVP race can be, nothing beats the pennant race and team success. The NL Central has been a back-and-forth tug-o-war all season. Neither team has been able to get on a roll to shake the other and neither has gone so cold to fall off the radar. It’s been frustrating at times on both sides (moreso for the Cards, the heavy favorite coming into 2010), but both have been consistent and stubborn enough to prevent a crippling slide. The Reds have done it with a balance of youthful energy and veteran leadership — in the lineup and in the rotation. Cincinnati can beat you with the bats and with the arms and that’s why this team has been so dangerous. Votto leads a lineup that includes fellow All-Stars, second baseman Brandon Phillips and third baseman Scott Rolen, the pesky Orlando Cabrera, and the powerful Jonny Gomes. The Reds also boast a deep rotation that includes big-time rookie Mike Leake who pitches in the opener, Johnny Cueto, and Bronson Arroyo. Others include former ace Aaron Harang, Homer Bailey who has shown flashes of brilliance, and Travis Wood who has been steady. Edinson Volquez is fresh off his 50-game suspension and has the stuff to make a difference.

The Cardinals lineup hasn’t been as explosive as I thought it would be, but they’ve been productive. Pujols and Holliday are having typical years for their All-Star careers. Ryan Ludwick was doing well until injury kept him out. Now, he’s in San Diego and Jon Jay has big shoes to fill. Thus far he has answered his call, hitting .371 and exuding great confidence. The infield is more of a mess offensively. Skip Schumaker, Brendan Ryan, and Yadier Molina are all having down years with the stick. St. Louis has overcome the problems with pitching. Adam Wainwright (16-6, 2.07) is a candidate for the Cy Young award and Chris Carpenter (12-3, 2.91) isn’t far behind. Jaime Garcia (9-5, 2.53) is a leader of Rookie of the Year talks. He has shown great poise and understanding of the game as a rookie and gives the Cards a nice change as a lefty. All three will be firing in the Cincinnati showdown. Jake Westbrook’s stay in St. Louis has just begun, but he provides another good arm in the back end.

The Arms Race

Chris Carpenter vs. Mike Leake, Monday

Carpenter is having another outstanding season with 12 wins and a 2.91 ERA. Carp gives the Cards an emotional boost on the mound and provides experience that is crucial in pennant races.

Leake is the youngster straight from Arizona State. He has ducked the media so far despite an incredible season with no minor league preparation. The small righty is 7-3 with a 3.86 ERA. He’s just as competitive as Carpenter and it shows when he’s on the mound and at the plate. He’s no easy out. Leake has a hitter’s presence in the box and takes some good hacks. He’s hitting .357 on the year.

Jaime Garcia vs. Johnny Cueto, Tuesday

Garcia has been more impressive than Leake on the mound. The lefty has turned in quality start after quality start without fail, bouncing back after tough starts and getting the Cards big wins. He is mature beyond his years and it shows in his performance and production. His 2.53 ERA can attest to that. While Stephen Strasburg stole the headlines after his midsummer call-up, Garcia kept plucking away in a brilliant rookie campaign.

Cueto’s success has been lost in the Year of the Pitcher. He is 11-2 with a 3.24 ERA and the staff ace for this Reds team. The hard-throwing Dominican will be amped up for this one.

Adam Wainwright vs. Bronson Arroyo, Wednesday

Another great matchup. While it seems Wainwright holds the edge, Bronson Arroyo always brings his best and he’s had success against the Cards. Waino is having a historically great season that can get better with a big performance heading into October. At 16-6 with a 2.07 ERA, he has a chance to reach the 20-win plateau and finish the season with an ERA below 2.00. That’s in the fantasy world of Bob Gibson who put up a 1.12 ERA in the last Year of the Pitcher in 1968. Wainwright’s attempt at history will be fun to watch.

Arroyo is the steady hand of the Reds rotation. He doesn’t wow you, but he knows how to pitch and he always gives seven-plus innings. The durable veteran knows how to beat the Cardinals, making even a Wainwright start a possible loss. He’ll keep the Reds in the game which should make for a grand finale in Cincinnati.

The three pitchers on both sides are both teams’ best which is how it should be in a series of this magnitude. The stage is set now all we have to do is sit back and watch the show. When the gates close Wednesday, we’ll have a great feel for how August and September will play out.