Updated: September 23, 2012 4:17 AM

Reds finally strike the right balance

Reds strike balance between 2010's surge and last year's stumble.


Reds finally strike the right balance

Reds finally strike the right balance

Bonus notes from our MLB on Fox broadcast of the Reds' clincher against the Dodgers on Saturday ...

As I wrote Friday, the Reds are better than when they won the 2010 NL Central title, mostly because of improvements to their rotation and bullpen.

Reds right fielder Jay Bruce goes even further.

"It's not even close," Bruce says. "We are much more experienced. We're more composed than we were.

"In 2010, it felt like a hair-on-fire type of thing. We got in, we played so well, we surprised most people. In 2011, we grossly underachieved (finishing 79-83).

"The combination of those two years set us up for this year. We expected a ton. We understand what we wanted to do. In 2010, we didn't understand. We just did it. It just happened."

BRUCE LESS THAN SATISFIED

By most measures, Bruce is enjoying an excellent season -- he has reached career highs with 34 homers and 37 doubles, and his 97 RBI match his career-high. His .860 OPS, which ranks 15th in the NL, also would be a career best.

Yet, when I asked Bruce to assess his performance, he sounded disappointed -- and particularly bothered that he was batting only .256.

"I still feel like I'm underachieving a little bit, to be honest," Bruce said. "I just feel like there's so much more there still.

"All you can ask for is to get better. If I continue to get better, I'll be in good shape. Right now as we stand here, I can be and expect to be better.

"I just don't consider myself a .250-something hitter."

LATOS FINDS REDEMPTION

Earlier this season, some Reds fans wondered why the team had acquired right-hander Mat Latos from the Padres in December for a steep four-player package -- right-hander Edinson Volquez, first baseman Yonder Alonso, catcher Yasmani Grandal and right-hander Brad Boxberger.

Latos does not deny that he tried to justify the trade.

"I let a lot of things get to me," Latos said. "I wanted to impress the fans. I wanted to hit the ground running."

Naturally, just the opposite happened.

Latos, after his ERA rose to 5.20 on June 18, had a talk with manager Dusty Baker, who in his playing days was the centerpiece of a 4-for-2 trade that sent him from the Braves to the Dodgers on Nov. 17, 1975.

"He knew exactly what it was," Latos said.

Latos said that Baker quoted an appropriate passage from the Bible, and the pitcher responded by throwing back-to-back complete games, beginning a run in which he has posted a 2.52 ERA in his last 17 starts.

Baker drives some fans crazy with his lineup choices and other decisions, but few managers are better at relating to players.

As for Latos, it was somehow appropriate that he pitched the clincher at Great American Ballpark, working eight scoreless innings.

"I was joking around, talking with (owner Bob) Castellini," Latos said on the eve of his start. "With the crap I've taken and put up with from the fans, it would be great to do that (pitch the clincher).

"In April, I was the most hated man in Cincinnati."

MORE FROM MAT

Latos, in his meeting with the FOX broadcasters on Friday, gave several amusing responses to questions about his success in day games and at San Francisco's AT&T Park.

After Saturday's win, he is now 6-0 with a 2.88 ERA in 12 starts in day games this season.

"A lot of it has to do with how much I hate getting up early," Latos said.

Huh?

"I'm just so miserable," he continued. "If I have to be here, you have to deal with me."

As for San Francisco, Latos described Giants fans as "ruthless," saying they hit him with water balloons, spit on him and sent him threatening mail during his days with the Padres.

Not that Latos minded.

He said he loves the atmosphere at AT&T, and his career 1.67 ERA in six starts at the park bodes well for the Reds if they face the Giants in the Division Series.

The series would open in San Francisco.

NL ROOKIE: FRAZIER, HARPER OR MILEY?

Many Reds fans view infielder Todd Frazier as an obvious choice for National League Rookie of the Year, and express frustration that he receives less media attention than the Nationals' phenom, Bryce Harper.

I get it. If I had a vote, I'd pick Frazier. But the choice isn't necessarily clear.

True, Frazier has better offensive numbers than Harper in nearly 100 fewer at-bats, and he helped carry the Reds while first baseman Joey Votto was sidelined from July 16 to Sept. 4.

Harper, though, is more of a baserunning threat, and makes most of his starts at a premium defensive position, center field.

Frankly, the most deserving candidate might be Diamondbacks left-hander Wade Miley, who is 16-10 with a 3.25 ERA.

DAT DUDE DISTRESS

Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips told me earlier this season that his preference was to hit leadoff -- he thinks he can help the Reds most in that spot, getting on base, stealing bases, being more of a complete player.

Yet, Phillips has batted only .203 with a .288 on-base percentage since returning to the leadoff spot on Sept. 5 -- and his numbers were worse before he went 2-for-3 with a homer Saturday. He says that pitchers are "flipping burgers up there," not giving him much to hit.

The return of shortstop Zack Cozart could help, stabilizing the No. 2 spot in the Reds' lineup. Cozart isn't exactly a force, but the Reds have five different No. 2 hitters since Phillips resumed batting leadoff, making it difficult to establish a rhythm at the top of the order.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE DODGERS?

The Dodgers' offense remains quite feeble -- the team is averaging 2.68 runs per game in September, worst in the National League.

I wrote recently that the team brought in so many new players, it has been unable to achieve the proper chemistry.

Some club officials, however, believe that the greater problem is that the Dodgers essentially transformed themselves from David into Goliath in a month's time, raising expectations and causing a number of hitters to start pressing.

Injuries haven't helped.

"People started getting banged up, messing up the whole flow of what's going on," center field Matt Kemp said. "We haven't quite overcome it."

SPEAKING OF MATT ...

Kemp has appeared in only 96 games due to injuries to his left hamstring, right knee and left shoulder, but he told me with a smile, "I feel like I've played in 170 or 180."

While Kemp made it clear that he is not complaining, he said that in the past he could always figure out a way to succeed while dealing with various ailments.

This year, he said, has been different.

"I've tried to figure out ways to play hurt and it hasn't worked out that well," he said.

Kemp, since injuring his shoulder in Colorado on Aug. 28, is batting .176 with a .512 OPS.

AROUND THE HORN

- The most encouraging development for the Reds on Saturday was that left-hander Aroldis Chapman threw 96 to 99 mph in his first appearance in 12 days.

Chapman issued one walk, but otherwise showed no lingering signs of shoulder fatigue, needing only 12 pitches to get through the ninth inning.

- One concern for the Reds as they prepare for the Division Series: They likely will need to use right-hander Homer Bailey at home in Game 4, if necessary. For this year only, the higher seeds will open on the road.

Bailey is 4-7 with a 5.05 ERA in 16 starts at home this season, 8-2 with a 2.63 ERA in 14 starts on the road. However, he produced quality starts in his last two outings at home, albeit against the Astros and Pirates.

- Hanley Ramirez, after arriving in a trade from the Marlins, told the Dodgers that he was willing to play shortstop or third base.

His flexibility will create an interesting competition next spring -- shortstop Dee Gordon and third baseman Luis Cruz will vie for one starting job, and Ramirez will fill the other.

Cruz could be a dynamic utility player if Gordon proves good enough to play every day at shortstop.

- And finally, congratulations not only to the Reds, but also the Giants, who pulled off the same feat on Saturday, clinching their second division title in three years.

I was in San Francisco for a broadcast the day the Dodgers made their big trade with the Red Sox, and Giants manager Bruce Bochy seemed stunned, almost bewildered.

Pretty much all of us had that reaction, right?

Well, Bochy and the Giants pressed forward - without Melky Cabrera, without the expensive goodies the Dodgers had assembled.

Second baseman Marco Scutaro proved a better short-term acquisition than any of the Dodgers' additions. Catcher Buster Posey emerged as a leading favorite for MVP. And the pitching, as always, was the Giants' backbone.

I'm guessing the Nationals' Davey Johnson will be NL Manager of the Year, and deservedly so. But both Baker and Bochy did some of their finest work this season.

They belong on the ballot, too.

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