Reds face adversity head-on and win
CINCINNATI -- They call this a game of adjustments, a test of resilience, and so you expect that a fair amount of flexibility will be required as the long season drags along.
What you don't expect, necessarily, is that your resilience will be tested after one rough game out of 162. That's taking the concept to a bit of an extreme.
But the Reds showed up to work Wednesday with this as their reality, having learned on their off-day that Ryan Ludwick's Opening Day-induced dislocated shoulder was as serious as had been feared. Ludwick, who quite literally dove head-first into the disabled list, could be out until the All-Star break, if not longer, and there goes the left fielder and cleanup hitter they just signed to a two-year deal on the heels of his comeback clout in 2012.
As was the case when Joey Votto went under the knife for his knee surgery last August, this is where we'll learn quite a bit about this Reds team that so many of us are touting as a World Series contender. Their early schedule is not a particularly pretty sight, and now they're suddenly scrambling to account for Ludwick's unanticipated absence.
No wonder Dusty Baker found himself in his office pregame, thumbing through the Bible and scribbling down notes about the book of Romans' platitudes on how suffering produces perseverance and perseverance produces character and character produces hope.
That's all well and good, sure, but what mattered most, in the immediate, was what Baker scribbled into his lineup -- Chris Heisey in left and batting second, Brandon Phillips batting fourth. Both proved pivotal in the uplifting 5-4 win over the Angels that followed.
Heisey, relegated to super-sub duties for much of his three previous seasons despite showing flashes of plate potential, drew the one-out walk in the fourth that rattled a to-that-point-perfect C.J. Wilson and helped set up Phillips' three-run blast to left-center field. And with the game knotted at 4 in the ninth, it was Heisey who put down the bunt that advanced Shin-Soo Choo to second and set up Votto's game-winning single off the glove of a diving Albert Pujols.
"I'm pulling for Heisey," Baker had said earlier in the day. "I just hope he doesn't put too much pressure on himself. I'm making it as easy on him as I can, batting in front of Joey Votto. It's up to him. All I can do is give guys the opportunity."
Maybe we'll one day look back at the Ludwick injury as some sort of blessing in disguise, much like the Votto injury helped give us a real glimpse of what Todd Frazier can do with a regular role. Heisey is, after all, a fastball hitter who should have his share to feast on with Votto behind him. The key will be staying out of his own head -- or at least avoiding shots to the head like the one he took in the fifth Wednesday, when catcher Chris Iannetta's throw to second on Heisey's successful steal attempt nailed Heisey square in the nose.
"What was I doing looking back at the ball while I was sliding?" Heisey wondered aloud afterward. "That's one of the dumbest things I've done in a long time."
Baker's decision to bat Phillips fourth, on the other hand, proved wise, and you can certainly see it working long term. Phillips can bat just about anywhere, but the guy loves the limelight and the carefree clout of batting cleanup. It was, after all, his primary spot in a 2007 season in which he hit 30 homers and drove in 94 runs, batting between Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn.
"When you bat cleanup," Phillips said, "all you're thinking about is driving in runs."
He drove in a few Wednesday, and the Reds got a victory that felt oddly important, given how early it is.
Of course, the Reds will still have some difficult days ahead. Days when it will be fair to wonder whether they ought to move Choo to left to get Heisey in center. Or days when Heisey or Xavier Paul or Derrick Robinson are struggling and the fans are clamoring for scintillating speedster Billy Hamilton or 6-foot-3, 240-pound bopper Donald Lutz to come up from the Minors.
Right now, neither Hamilton nor Lutz are deemed ready for this stage. Lutz has just 40 games of Double-A experience and is back at that level, and Hamilton is a year into his career as a switch-hitter and mere months into his tenure as a center fielder.
"They're both going to be something," Baker said. "But when they arrive? Who knows? It's something you'd love to rush, but you can't."
Nor can the Reds rush to the end of the season schedule and claim the National League Central crown people are counting on. The loss of Ludwick is Lesson No. 1 in the pain of the process. Game of adjustments, indeed, and the Reds adjusted well on this night.