With more than half a season remaining, the Reds have plenty of time and games to get their act together. If they don't, it will be one of the biggest disappointments of 2011.
The Reds arrived at Tropicana Field on Monday night for the start of an Interleague series against Tampa Bay, mired in a third-place tie with Pittsburgh. The Milwaukee Brewers are leading the pack.
This was the night Jonny Gomes, who grew up in the Rays organization and helped them reach the 2008 World Series, returned to St. Petersburg with the enemy. He made it a memorable night by leading off the fourth inning with a home run to left field off Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson.
But aside from that and all the pleasantries and local media attention -- Gomes was a Rays' fan favorite -- getting the Reds back on a consistent track was the priority.
The Reds went on to beat the Rays, 5-0.
"It's better to tread water than it is sinking and drowning," Baker said, sitting behind his desk in the visiting manager's office before the game.
The skipper stuck one of his trademark toothpicks between his teeth, glanced at a collage of Major League managers on the wall, and seemed pensive.
"We had some key injuries early to our pitching staff; they're back now but not quite 100 percent," he started. "Our offense is good, but could be better and great. We really haven't operated on all cylinders yet." The Reds lead the NL in runs and with pitchers Aroldis Chapman, Homer Bailey and Sam LeCure returning from the disabled list, their pitching should be stronger.
After winning their division and landing in the postseason for the first time since 1995 last year, the Reds were overwhelming favorites to repeat.
Even though they were swept by the Phillies in the NL Division Series, including a no-hitter by Roy Halladay, that was supposed to be a learning experience for this young, offensive-powered team and propel it to an even greater season in 2011.
Something has gone wrong.
I've often said with the grind of the 162-game marathon players often forget what it took to reach their previous heights. And before they know it, the season has slipped away.
I don't believe that will happen with the Reds for two reasons: First, Baker, 61, won't tolerate a letdown. Second, with young stars such as 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto and slugger Jay Bruce there's too much talent for them to falter.
"We certainly haven't lived up to what a lot of people expected of us," said veteran third baseman Scott Rolen.
Rolen pointed out even though the Reds started Monday four games behind the Brewers, "to be just four games out considering the way we've played is encouraging. We're a much better team than we've showed."
Rolen went to great lengths to explain how quickly a team can turn a season around.
On May 2, 2010, the Reds were struggling, five games out of first place. Propelled by the best offense in the NL, they began to win games and after a see-saw battle with St. Louis, held first place for the last 50 days of the season and won the Central Division crown by five games.
"We have to be encouraged when we look ahead," said Baker. "We're in every ballgame. I can't tell you the last time we got blown out. We're within a pitch, a run, a defensive miscue, a baserunning miscue, a late-inning home run by them [opponent]. That lets me know we're so very close to getting it together and keeping it for a long period of time.
"This is what we're capable of doing, especially if we get our pitching together. We've had good starting pitching for the last couple of weeks."
Unlike 2010, the Reds got off to a fast start and on April 12 were 8-3 and led the division by 2 1/2 games. Between May 18 and May 29 they lost 10 of 12 games and tumbled into third place as Milwaukee caught fire.
In the midst of that span, they lost a devastating 19-inning game at Philadelphia, 5-4.
"That was in the middle of 20 games in a row and 33 games in 34 days," said Baker. "That's what put us behind the eight-ball big time. Every club is going to go through it.
"We'd be in great shape if it weren't for the American League. They've been beating up on us big time."
- 131 wins
- 121 wins
The way the Interleague schedule falls this year, the Reds are playing the rugged AL East after being swept by Cleveland in May. Before playing the Rays, they lost two of three to the Blue Jays, two of three to the Yankees and two of three to Baltimore.
"The AL East is the toughest division I've seen," said Baker. "Most of the teams pitch well. When we lost to Cleveland, the Indians were playing their best baseball of the season. There's no smooth sailing, but when we get through this stretch here we should be fine. The last couple of years we've played very well in our division.
"If we can stick right around that .500 mark and boom -- win six or seven in a row we'll be seven or eight over. We have to stay out of extended losing streaks."
Rolen puts it this way: "It doesn't matter where you are in the standings at this stage of the season. They key is we're just four games back. You can make that up in a hurry."
Baker said the fact he has a 12-year-old son "helps me deal with the young players on this team."
But he's never learned to deal with the frustrations of the season and, "I haven't learned yet why the losses are so much sourer than the sweetness of the victories. The losses are excruciating. I'm tired of the sleepless nights when we lose."
Sleepless in Cincinnati is not the way it was supposed to be this year.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.