It is only mid-May, but Ken Griffey Jr. and the Cincinnati Reds make their second and last visit to Dodger Stadium starting Monday night--unless they return in October. The Reds were tied with the homer-happy St. Louis Cardinals for the National League Central lead entering the weekend, and General Manager Jim Bowden believes his ballyhooed team can only get better.
"We certainly haven't been operating on all cylinders, but we're making progress," Bowden said by phone. "To be in first place at this point is a good sign. We just need to get some more bats going and throw some more strikes. We're a very competitive team when healthy."
The young Reds won 96 games last year and after a quarter of the season are on pace to win 93 despite the loss of Sean Casey and Barry Larkin for three weeks each, the inconsistent start by key acquisitions Griffey and Dante Bichette and an average of five walks a game by their pitchers--with a thin and suspect rotation again forcing Manager Jack McKeon to employ a versatile bullpen--the relievers registered 33 wins last year--with alarming frequency.
Bowden has never shied from dealing, and he probably will address his pitching situation before the July 31 trade deadline.
He traded for Juan Guzman last July after previously making midseason deals for David Wells, Mark Portugal and Dave Burba, among others.
"Even though the market looks bleak, history indicates that there will be pitchers available," Bowden said, possibly thinking of Brad Radke, Mike Mussina and a few others of that quality. "Hopefully, we can add one or two, although there's time for the guys here to show us why we shouldn't."
Much of Cincinnati's focus, of course, remains on Griffey and Bichette.
Griffey leads the team in homers (13) and runs batted in (36), has lifted his average to .236 and helped power the Reds to a 10-1 record in games in which he has homered.
Bichette was struggling at .214 with five homers and 14 RBIs, and was benched for all three games of a midweek series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, much to his consternation.
After averaging 156 games in his last four seasons with Colorado, Bichette told McKeon he isn't used to sitting, which prompted a blunt response from the manager.
"I don't care what he thinks," McKeon said. "He was told this spring how it would be, that I use all my players. I've even had some people tell me I've shown too much patience with Dante. I want him to succeed, but this is the way it is. He's trying to do too much and needs to clear his mind. I told him he hasn't had adversity and he needs to learn how to handle it."
Wrigley Field's beefed-up security in the aftermath of the Dodgers' tangle with Chicago Cub fans Tuesday could be challenged next weekend when John Rocker will be sitting with the Atlanta Brave relievers in that right-field bullpen, or as Cub executive Mark McGuire put it: "We'll definitely have an intensified program when Rocker arrives."
Meanwhile, the incident revived memories for Milwaukee Brewer manager and former Dodger Davey Lopes, who understands the risks and liabilities.
Lopes once went into the Candlestick Park stands to try to pull teammate Reggie Smith out after Smith had been hit by a batting helmet thrown by a fan. Lopes was sued but prevailed.
"Fans have every right to come and boo, but a lot of times they go over the line, and it can take a lot of restraint for major league athletes not to respond," he said. "The commissioner's office has to do what it has to do because we don't condone that behavior [by players], but I can see how it could happen."