LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - LOUISVILLE (WAVE) - I needed this All-Star Game break every bit as much as the Cincinnati Reds, the major-league baseball team I’ve followed since…well, suffice it to say I have a photo of me getting at autograph from Clarence “Bud” Podbielen, who pitched for the Reds from 1951-’55.
I’m sure in the franchise’s 150-year history, the Reds have fielded teams as maddening as the current one. But in my lifetime, I can’t remember a Reds team that was such a cruel tease to the true believers, who follow the team faithfully on radio and TV when they can’t come to Great American Ball Park on the banks of the Ohio River.
I’d like to see if Marty Brennaman agrees. After 45 years as the radio voice of the Reds, he’s retiring after this season. One of the best things about Marty is he’ll tell you the unvarnished truth instead of giving you the official company line.
Heading into the second half of the season, the Reds have a 41-46 record and are in last place in the National League Central Division. But they’re only 4 ½ games out of first place, which is closer than the second-place team in any of baseball’s five other divisions.
In other words, they’re still in the divisional championship race. They’re not a bad team. In fact, at times they look like a very good team, their losing record notwithstanding.
The pitching has been superb. The only Reds to make the NL All-Star team are starters Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray. They are third in the major leagues in earn-run average (3.77).
But the hitting has been mediocre, at best. The Reds are 27th in the major in batting average (.235), 28th in runs scored (368), and 18th in home runs (117). They have lost a ton of one-run games.
Still, the Reds are a fun team to follow, deserving of more attendance than the current average of 21,000 and change.
To use a cliché, right-fielder Yasiel Puig is worth the price of admission. He’s a five-tool player who can be as good as he wants. Known as something of a head case in his days with the Dodgers, Puig has done all the right things in Cincinnati – and the fans are crazy about him.
Third-baseman Eugenio Suarez is the other big bat in the lineup. He’s a threat to hit it out of the park anytime he steps to the plate. He’s probably the team’s most dangerous hitter when the Reds need a run to win or tie.
Shortstop Jose Iglesias, a late pickup, has been a solid hitter and All-Star-caliber fielder, and young outfielders Jesse Winker and Nick Senzel have played well enough to make us think they’re going to be solid contributors for a long time.
Finally, utility infielders Jose Peraza, Derek Dietrich and Kyle Farmer have combined to do a good job of filling in for second-baseman Scooter Gennett, who only recently returned from an injury and is struggling to get his timing back.
And then there’s Joey Votto.
The team’s mainstay at first base for the last decade, Votto has declined from a dangerous power hitter and RBI man to a guy who seems happy with bloop singles and walks. It seems he has taken more called third strikes this season than at any time in his outstanding career.
Although he’s improved his batting average to .268 after a horrid start, that’s still a long way from that guy who could be counted upon to hit better than .300, with 25 or 30 homers and around 100 RBIs, season after season.
Is he washed up? There’s been a lot of whispering about that throughout his second-consecutive sub-par season. He’s 35, getting ready to turn 36 on Sept. 9. That’s not necessarily old by today’s baseball standards, but it’s a time when a lot of players begin to slip.
Of all the Reds, Votto is the most mysterious. Nobody seems sure of what’s going on in his head. He’s quiet by nature and avoids publicity as much as he can. He seems so into himself that he’s never been much of a team leader, either on the field or in the clubhouse.
For the Reds to win the division – and they could if their pitching holds up and they get more timely hits in the second half – Votto will have to return to a semblance of his former self in the second half.
Besides that, Gennett, who has been one of the Reds’ best players the previous two seasons, must get back in the groove. Barnhart, a former Gold Glove catcher, must come back from his injury to be the clutch hitter he used to be, besides taking some of the load off backup Curt Casali.
Finally, the Reds’ starters – Castillo, Gray, Anthony DeSciafani, Tyler Mahle and Tanner Roark – must go deeper into games to take some pressure off the Reds’ bullpen.
Overall, the team seems to like rookie manager David Bell, a third-generation Red and the grandson of David “Gus” Bell, a product of Louisville who played center field for the Reds in the 1950′s.
Sure, Bell has made some mistakes and some curious decisions. But he’s confident enough to go with his instincts instead of being a push-button manager who is slave to what the hallowed metrics numbers dictate what he should do.
I’ll be rejuvenated and ready to go when regular-season play resumes. I hope the team will be, as well. I’m not sure my nerves can take a second half like the first.
If the Reds hitters – other than Votto – will only stop swinging for the fences and settle for more line drives, this could be a special season for the team I’ve followed since the beers most favored by Reds fans were named Hudepohl and Burger.