The first half of the baseball season is coming to an end and when it comes to the topic of the most surprising team so far, I have to go with the Cincinnati Reds (the San Diego Padres get an honorable mention). Nobody thought Cincinnati would be in first place in the N.L Central at this point in the season. In fact, many predicted they would come in third place or worse. But Cincinnati has shown they are legit and it will be a battle for first place when we get closer to October.
At the beginning of the season, the consensus opinion was that the St. Louis Cardinals would take the division. But the Reds are 5-7 against the Cardinals so the race for the N.L Central pennant is pretty even. Not to mention they're the only team in the division with a winning record on the road.
The Reds are dominating in almost every offensive statistical category. As a team, Cincinnati leads the National League in home runs with 102 (tied with Milwaukee), batting average with .276, slugging percentage with .436, runs with 416 and RBI with 403.
Not only are they the most surprising team in the league, they're doing it by consistently creeping up and surprising the opposition by coming back late in games. The Reds currently lead the Major Leagues in comeback victories with an astounding twenty five. Fourteen of those wins came in their last at-bat.
Joey Votto, an MVP candidate as of right now, is the leader and best player on the team. Although he was just snubbed from the All-Star game, the 26-year-old first baseman has been one of the best players in the N.L. He is in the top five in every statistic in the N.L and leads the team in home runs, RBI, batting average and OPS. Oh, and he belted two homers last night and is now leads the majors in homers with 21.
While Cincinnati's starting rotation isn't sexy, they have done their job keeping their team in games. It's worth noting however, that the Reds do not have a starting pitcher with an ERA under 3.00 and Edinson Volquez has been on the 60-day DL since February. Volquez is on schedule to return after the All-Star break as he will need one more rehab start in Triple-A before making his comeback. It remains to be seen how he will fare, but it would seem that the Reds will need a strong contribution from him in order to have a shot at actually winning the division.
When it comes down to a pennant race, it's all about which team has better pitching. Right now, it is clear St. Louis has the edge despite being behind Cincinnati by 1.5 games. Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, 2009 Cy Young candidates, have been consistently dominant and Jamie Garcia has been a pleasant surprise too, recording a 2.10 ERA, the best on the team.
The Reds pitching clearly isn't as good, but it's been good enough to date and there is always the trade deadline. Plenty of teams can use pitchers like Roy Oswalt and Cliff Lee. The Reds, Twins, Rangers, Phillies, Dodgers and Mets could all use another front-end-of-the-rotation pitcher to bolster their chances of going deep into the postseason. If Cincinnati can land a big-time pitcher, they could easily run away with the division. It's not likely that will happen however and it is more likely that it's going to be a close race, with the team getting hot down the stretch taking the division
Anything can happen as we approach the end of the season and the Reds definitely seem like if they can get hot, they can go deep into the playoffs just like the Rockies did in 2008.
Cincinnati has shown both the character and ability to win fourteen games in their last-at bat. There is no reason that they can't be the team to get hot down the stretch and take that momentum into the Fall Classic. - Michael Klopman
Michael, a Penn State Graduate writes for Xtra Point Football, Around the Horn Baseball, and works on the sports page at the Huffington Post.
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