CINCINNATI First baseman Joey Votto and second baseman Brandon Phillips are the cornerstones of the Cincinnati Reds long-term success.
The contracts say so.
The foundation, however, for the Reds returning to the top in the National League Central rests on the arms of their pitching rotation.
So far, so good.
The Reds have recovered from two weeks of season-opening misery and find themselves sitting atop the division.
The offense remains in a funk, ranking 14th in the NL with a .241 batting average, ahead of only the San Diego Padres (.222) and Pittsburgh Pirates (.216). The Reds are 12th in runs scored, with 184, and 15th in batting average with runners in scoring position, at .206.
The good news is the Reds went into Sunday having rallied from a 4-8 stumble at the start of the season.
They regained the division lead by running off a six-game winning streak, which underscored the importance of a solid pitching staff to a contender. They managed to run off the victories, including a four-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves, despite a .159 average with runners in scoring position.
They did it because their rotation ran off six consecutive quality starts, limiting the bullpen demands, which meant manager Dusty Baker was able to use his relievers when he wanted them, not when he had to — a key ingredient to bullpen success.
That allowed the Reds to split the first two games of a weekend visit by the Colorado Rockies despite the starters combining for only 8-13 innings. The well-rested bullpen turned in 9-23 innings in those games and allowed only one run.
Not that Baker is asking a lot of questions right now.
A friend of mine is a surfer, Baker said, and he told me when you are riding a wave, you dont think about falling off or you will fall off. You just ride the wave and enjoy it.
What makes the Reds ride so enjoyable is that they know they have an offense that has not even come close to doing the job it is capable of, yet the Reds are in first place. Jay Bruce leads the team with 10 home runs, but is in a 2-for-34 funk that included a day of mental rest on Friday.
Chris Heisey, who hit 26 home runs in 480 at-bats before this year, finally delivered No. 1 of 2012 on Saturday night.
Votto, signed to a 10-year, 240 million extension during the spring that ties him to the team through 2013, is having a solid start (.321, seven home runs and 28 RBI), but not spectacular. Phillips, signed to a six-year deal during the spring, has yet to clean up from the fourth spot (.273, four home runs, 20 RBI).
The Reds, however, are winning.
This team is based on pitching and defense, Phillips said. Were not hitting the ball like we feel we are capable of, but we are getting the key hits. And because our pitching has been so good, we dont need a lot of key hits.
Other than Johnny Cueto (5-2, 2.53 ERA), none of the starters have spectacular numbers. But a lot of that is because of their early season struggles. The rotation has averaged slightly more than six innings per game, which means Baker hasnt been forced to overwork the bullpen. The Reds also have had consistency, joining fellow division leaders Washington from the NL East and Los Angeles from the NL West, along with Miami and St. Louis, both teams in second place, as the only NL clubs to have used only five starters so far this season.
It has paid off.
Our bullpen has been spectacular, Phillips said. Our bullpen is like San Diegos was a couple years ago, when the Padres had (Heath) Bell, (Ryan) Webb and (Edward) Mujica. Its a six-inning game because of our bullpen. We get through six, and then its (Jose) Arredondo, (Sean) Marshall and (Aroldis) Chapman.
Spectacular? The 2.51 bullpen ERA is second-best in the NL, behind only the Miami Marlins. Although Marshall had some rocky moments in earning the Reds first seven saves of the season, blowing one, he has fit well into that late-inning left-hander role, and Chapman has dominated while transitioning to the ninth-inning role.
Dominated? Try 24 13 innings without an earned run. Chapman has allowed only seven hits and seven walks, and he has 43 strikeouts.
All of which gave Phillips reason to smile.
Once we all start swinging the bats well . . . Phillips said.
He didnt finish the sentence.
The Cardinals, who fell out of first place for the first time this season on Thursday, went through an eight-day nightmare during which they lost five players to the disabled list, including first baseman Lance Berkman with a torn meniscus that required surgery on Friday. Also sidelined were center fielder Jon Jay (sprained right shoulder), outfielderinfielder Allen Craig (strained left hamstring) right-hander Kyle McClellan (elbow strain) and rookie infielderoutfielder Matt Carpenter (straight right oblique).
Cardinals do hope to get Jay and Craig back this week. Berkman and McClellan figure to miss at least eight weeks, most likely more.
The Cardinals, however, arent getting any sympathy from the Boston Red Sox, who have 13 players on the disabled list, including seven outfielders.
The demise of Albert Pujols was exaggerated. After stumbling through the first month of the season with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Pujols was given the day off May 5 to clear his mind. Looks like it worked.
Pujols went into Sunday having hit .280 in his past 20 games, with 21 RBI and his first seven home runs of the season. He has hit four homers in the past five games.
Pujols home run Thursday against the Seattle Mariners was the 450th of his career, making him the fourth-youngest player (32 years, 129 days) to reach 450. Alex Rodriguez did it six years ago at age 30 years, 359 days. Ken Griffey Jr. reached 450 in 2001 at the age of 31 years, 261 days. Jimmie Foxx was 31 years, 276 days of age when he hit No. 450 back in 1939.
The Chicago Cubs were no-hit twice during the 1965 season. Jim Maloney of Cincinnati threw a no-hitter against them on Aug. 19 that season in a 10-inning game. Then, on Sept. 9, Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers threw a perfect game. Thats the last time the Cubs were no-hit, the longest stretch of avoiding being held hitless among major-league teams.