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First Place Reds

CINCINNATI (AP) - The glowing wishbone "C" was still atop the

right-field videoboard listing the NL Central standings on Monday,

looking quite out of place at the top of the heap.

Yes, the Cincinnati Reds were in first place. And it was a big

deal.

The Reds haven't had a winning season since 2000, when Ken

Griffey Jr. was in his first season with his hometown team and Jack

McKeon was managing them to a second-place finish. Since then,

Junior had come and gone, and they haven't even come close,

descending into spiral of nine straight losing seasons.

When the Reds beat defending NL Central champion St. Louis 7-2

on Sunday to move a half-game ahead, it was the first time they'd

been in the top spot so deep into a season since 2006. Fans

lingered and cheered the change on the standings board after the

win, feeling a little giddy.

Yes, the Reds were on top of their little world.

"I don't think I've heard that since I was 6 - I'm not sure,"

right-hander Bronson Arroyo said, exaggerating slightly. "It's

been a long time. It definitely means something. I think it means

more to this club than it would to one that's been winning the past

few years. It's huge for us."

It came at a good time for the franchise.

The Reds were coming off a 78-84 season that showed fans had

started to abandon them. They drew 1.7 million last year, their

smallest gate since 1986, and didn't have much action at the ticket

gates to start this season. Through April, they had the

fourth-lowest attendance in the NL.

It didn't help that the team looked abysmal. They had so many

brain-lock moments during a 5-0 loss to San Diego on April 24 that

manager Dusty Baker chewed them out afterward. Baker was so angry

that he declined to meet with the media, a very rare thing.

"That may have woken us up a little bit," outfielder Jay Bruce

said. "Every team needs reminders."

From that low point - last place - they took off, going 15-5 as

they climbed all the way up the standings.

The pitching staff that was expected to be the strength of the

team finally started performing up to the high expectations. The

Reds made the final push into first by winning seven of their last

eight heading into their two-game series starting Monday with

Milwaukee. During that stretch, the staff's ERA was 1.88.

The Reds made sure they would stay in first another day by

beating the Brewers 6-3 on Monday night.

"We didn't start getting hot until we started pitching," Baker

said. "We started pitching and we started hitting at the same

time. That's what you want."

The Reds lead the majors with nine wins in their final at-bat.

They lead the majors in getting runners from first to third on a

single. They also lead the NL in fielding percentage, having gone

11 games without an error - their best streak since 1997.

The rest of the division's struggles also played into it. St.

Louis and Cincinnati are the only teams in the NL Central with

winning records. The Cubs, Brewers, Pirates and Astros have gone

through rough times so far. So far, nobody else appears to be

capable of keeping up with the Cardinals.

"To tell you the truth, I'm just happy we're winning," second

baseman Brandon Phillips said. "We're happy to be in the position

we're in now. I'm happy with the way we're coming together."

Baker, in the third and final year of his contract, was under a

lot of criticism from fans after the poor first month. He

understands that fans' frustration with nine years of losing leave

them quick to give up.

"Around here, there's people still a little skeptical because

there's been times when the team started off good and come August,

you can't find them," Baker said. "I don't think this is that

kind of team."

First place in mid-May doesn't indicate anything for the

long-term. The 2006 team that was in first place in June ended up

finishing third with an 80-82 mark, the closest Cincinnati has come

to a winning record the last nine years.

Given all the recent losing, the move into first place provided

a psychological lift.

"Absolutely," manager Walt Jocketty said, in an interview.

"We've played really well, we've pitched well, we've hit well.

These guys know they can win. They've got the talent and ability to

do it, and it's great to see it. They're playing like they're

capable of playing and like we think they're going to play."

It might help at the gate, too. When the Reds took the field for

warmups on Monday evening, a fan in a red shirt with No. 1 in front

danced in the second row behind the dugout and chanted, "First

place! First place! First place!"

No one blamed him for enjoying the moment.

"We've got a long way to go, man," Baker said. "I know

everybody's excited about first place, but you can be in second

place tomorrow. This thing hopefully will go down to the wire."

 

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

 

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