Manager: Bryan Price, first year
Last 10 games: 5-5
Who to watch: C Devin Mesoraco (.280/.361/.531, 21 doubles, 20 HR, 65 RBIs); 3B Todd Frazier (.278/.340/.456, 20 doubles, 23 HR, 70 RBIs, 73 R, 19 SB); RHP Mat Latos (5-3, 3.15 ERA, 1.08 WHIP); RHP Mike Leake (10-11, 3.38 ERA, 1.22 WHIP)
Season series vs. O’s (2013): Did not play
When the Reds arrived at the All-Star break, their season prospects looked bright. They had surged to third place in the National League Central and just 1 1/2 games out of first at 51-44.
But Cincinnati proceeded to lose its first seven games after the All-Star Game and is 15-27 since the break to slip out of postseason contention - eight games out of first and seven games out in the wild card race.
The Reds might be on the way to halting their spiral, however, as they have won five of eight heading into their first series at Camden Yards since losing two of three there in 2011.
The recent uptick in play still mirrors the club’s struggles and strengths from the season as a whole.
The Reds pitching staff has been the key of late, allowing just 23 runs in its last nine games (2.6 per game), holding opponents to three or fewer in eight of the nine after a string of six straight contests allowing five runs or more. And Cincinnati is winning despite an offense that has scored only 26 runs over the last eight games, averaging 3.3 per contest.
The Reds had gone to the playoffs in three of the last four seasons, winning at least 90 games three times with a roster much like the one they took into this season.
But injuries to several key members of the club and ineffectiveness for some of those players when healthy has led to this kind of down year.
First baseman Joey Votto, the 2010 NL MVP, has been limited to 62 games by a quad injury and he’s on the 60-day disabled list. Star second baseman Brandon Phillips has been limited to 99 games by a thumb injury, and he’s on pace to have his lowest OPS (.664) since he appeared in just six games in 2005. Right fielder Jay Bruce missed time with knee surgery and has struggled. After winning Silver Sluggers in 2012 and 2013, he has a career-worst .661 OPS this year.
And on the pitching side, right-hander Homer Bailey is on the 60-day DL with a right elbow injury after going 9-5 with a 3.71 ERA in 23 starts, and right-hander Mat Latos has been limited to 17 starts by elbow and knee injuries.
So this isn’t a supporting cast of players hampered by injuries, but the core of the club that has been affected. And that has the Reds needing a miraculous September for a shot at making the playoffs again.
The Orioles are still in store for some of the best pitching in the NL. Cincinnati ranks sixth on the senior circuit with a 3.50 ERA, third with a 3.30 starters’ ERA and 14th with a 4.00 bullpen ERA.
But Baltimore won’t have to face ace Johnny Cueto (16-8, 2.26 ERA) and former Orioles right-hander Alfredo Simon (13-9, 3.28 ERA), the two primary reasons the Reds rotation ranks so highly.
The toughest test comes in tonight’s series opener when Latos takes on Bud Norris. Latos is 5-3 with a 3.15 ERA in 17 starts, but snapped a streak of six consecutive starts allowing three runs or fewer in his last outing. He earned the win anyway with four earned runs in seven innings. But during the six prior starts, Latos had pitched to a 2.79 ERA.
On Wednesday, 28-year-old right-hander Dylan Axelrod pitches opposite Miguel Gonzalez. Axelrod has made just two starts for the Reds this season, but is 1-0 with a 1.64 ERA, having allowed two runs in 11 innings. He entered this season with a 5.36 career ERA.
In Thursday’s finale, the Orioles face another tough test in a pitching match-up that rivals the opener with right-hander Mike Leake going up against Chris Tillman. Leake has been one of the Reds’ top starters, going 10-11 with a 3.38 ERA in 28 starts. The 26-year-old has been exceptional over his last two starts, allowing just 11 baserunners in 13 2/3 scoreless innings.
The Cincinnati bullpen hasn’t measured up to its rotation with 19 blown saves this season.
With so many pieces missing for long stretches, the offense has been an issue. The Reds rank 13th in the NL with 515 runs, a .230 average and a .667 OPS, while tying for ninth with 109 homers. Center fielder Billy Hamilton’s 54 steals has the club ranked second in the NL in that category, however.
Catcher Devin Mesoraco and third baseman Todd Frazier have been the central figures in the lineup with Votto, Phillips and Bruce unable to provide their usual production. Mesoraco leads the club with an .892 OPS while ranking second with 20 homers and 65 RBIs. Frazier leads the Reds with 23 homers and 70 RBIs while ranking second with 19 steals.
Even though Cincinnati’s offense hasn’t been the same as in recent seasons, the pitching has been strong, even behind Cueto and Simon. So the Orioles will need to keep hitting well to slow the Reds’ emergence from their second-half slump.