Anthony Castrovince

Strong pitching has Reds at top of NL Central

Castrovince: Pitching has Reds at top of division

Strong pitching has Reds at top of NL Central
PITTSBURGH -- Between a heist and a Heimlich, it was a bit of an odd stay in the Steel City for the Cincinnati Reds.

Aroldis Chapman's girlfriend was reportedly tied up at the team's five-star hotel by a robber who ransacked the couple's room. And this incident occurred just two nights after Todd Frazier came to the rescue of a man who literally bit off more than he could chew at a downtown restaurant.

It's hard to know if the closer's recent off-field conundrums (Chapman, remember, was arrested last week for driving on an Ohio highway at only a slightly slower speed than his 100-plus-mph fastball, and he was also sued by a Cuban-American man who blames Chapman for his imprisonment on the communist island) will affect his utter on-field dominance, which stands at 26 scoreless innings and counting.

But one would have to imagine that when your starting third baseman saves a guy's life, that's good karma.

"Better than not," a smiling Jay Bruce said. "I would say so."

The Reds might feel they need a little help in the karma department right now, having just dropped two of three to the Pirates. But they've got a decent ballclub, and it's one that seems -- this particular series aside -- to be finding its footing at a time when the season is starting to take shape.

Nine wins in 12 games has allowed the Reds to take the top spot in the National League Central. And given how banged up the defending World Series champion Cardinals and defending division champion Brewers are, the Reds are hoping to achieve some separation in the coming days.

"This division definitely isn't the strongest in the game," Bronson Arroyo said. "So I think just being consistent can keep us right in the thick of things for the whole year."

Where the need for consistency is most glaring is in the lineup.

Joey Votto had a mammoth May that was, well, very Votto-like. He hit .348 with six homers, 14 RBIs and posted a 1.152 OPS. All that hot hitting earned the $200 million man a very rare night out of the starting lineup Wednesday.

"He's been working tirelessly," manager Dusty Baker said. "He didn't like the April he had (.289 average, .939 OPS). Ted Williams used to say that usually after a hot streak, there's a cold streak, because you get physically worn down from running the bases and you're making a lot of left turns, going first to third, first to home, second to home. ... Joey's been making a lot of left turns, and he does carry the offensive weight of this team. That's a pretty big burden."

It's an even bigger burden when you consider the lack of a proven supporting cast in the middle of the order. Brandon Phillips' bat has come alive in recent weeks, but he's still probably best served as a leadoff hitter and miscast in his current cleanup spot. Bruce, in the No. 5 spot, always looks like a breakout waiting to happen, but he's been streaky.

Furthermore, the Reds haven't yet gotten the production they hope to see from Drew Stubbs or rookies Zack Cozart and Devin Mesoraco, and the long-term loss of Scott Rolen, who is out with left shoulder soreness and has no announced timetable for a return, isn't helping matters, even if Frazier has had a couple big hits to go with the big Heimlich.

"We still have holes in our roster," Phillips said. "We play with what we got. But the thing is, we get key hits in key situations. That's what we're better at this year than last year."

Right now, when the Reds win, it's because they get just enough offense to back a better-than-average pitching staff that ranks fifth in the Majors in ERA (3.40).

This club has upside in its rotation, given the youth of Mat Latos (4-2, 4.58 ERA) and the improvement shown by Homer Bailey (4-3, 3.73). Johnny Cueto, who was victimized by a lack of run support in Wednesday's loss, and he has had some shaky moments lately but has allowed three runs or fewer in nine of his 11 starts. Arroyo (2-3, 3.59) appears to have bounced back from a rough-and-tumble 2011, leaving fifth starter Mike Leake (1-5, 5.47) as the biggest question mark.

"I honestly think this is the first time we've had a starting staff that could have three or four guys pitch 200 innings," Arroyo said. "That's huge."

How huge? The Reds haven't had more than one guy reach the 200-innings mark since 2007, when Arroyo and Aaron Harang did it.

In a perfect world, Chapman would be one of the five guys vying for that kind of innings tally. As it stands, he's in a role in which he might reach 80.

Across the baseball world, the debate rages as to whether the Reds are wasting the precious talent Chapman provides, but no one can deny that he's making the most of his ninth-inning opportunity. Chapman's numbers are simply silly -- he's struck out 6.3 times as many batters as he's allowed hits to, all while amassing that 0.00 ERA in 21 appearances -- and his presence in the back end of the bullpen gives the Reds an air of late-inning assurance that can't be underestimated.

"The other guys simply don't want to face him," Arroyo said. "That gives us a mental edge. You normally don't get that edge with a guy like Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols at the plate. But we feel like we have that over everyone."

As it stands on their first off-day in three weeks, the Reds have the edge over everyone in the Central. They're 28-22 -- not far off their 50-game pace (30-20) in 2010, when they won the NL Central title.

"If you can stay around .500," Baker said, "you've got action."

The Reds had plenty of odd action off the field this week. Their ultimate goal, though, is to take care of business on it, and they've done a better job of that in recent weeks.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.