Despite Losses, Reds Remain in Control

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Cincinnati Reds entered Sunday's series finale at Dodger Stadium still leading the National League in team batting, pitching and fielding.

If they didn't perform like it again in a 6-4 loss to the Dodgers--they have lost five of their last seven and are 46-48 since June 3--there is really only one category that matters in September of any season.

The Reds lead the Dodgers by 5 1/2 games and the San Francisco Giants by 7 1/2 in the West. It is the same lead they had when leaving on a four-city, 11-game trip Aug. 30. They are, at least, running out the clock effectively and now play 17 of their final 23 games at Riverfront Stadium while the Dodgers play 14 of their final 22 on the road.

"When you have 17 of your last 23 games at home and the two teams chasing you have to play six games against each other, you've got to feel good about your position," Cincinnati Manager Lou Piniella said Sunday. "Everything is in our favor.

"I mean, when you take a four-city, 11-game trip at this point in the season and come back with the same (lead) you left with, that's not a bad trip.

"If someone had told me in spring training that we'd have a six-game lead in the loss column with 23 to play, I might have said, 'Hey, anybody should be able to play it from here.' We just have to keep playing hard, playing good."

The Reds, however, have been more inconsistent than good, and the one area Piniella hopes to sort out is pitching. There is no sure stopper in a rotation that has produced seven complete games since the All-Star break, four by Jose Rijo. Jack Armstrong, who has gone from 11-3 to 12-9, came off the disabled list Sunday but will first test a tender elbow by pitching out of the bullpen.

Jackson gave up seven hits and five runs, three of which were earned, in a five-inning stint as Sunday's loser. He has lasted only 13 1/3 innings in those three starts since his second assignment on the DL. The Reds are 65-7 when they have scored four runs or more, but no longer is that a sure thing.

"Score four runs off Ramon Martinez and you should come away with a win," Piniella said Sunday. "Pitching is supposed to be carrying us down the stretch, and we need guys to start throwing the ball the way they're capable of. It's tough coming off injuries, but now is the time we have to get it done."

Jackson, plagued by injuries since going 23-8 in '88, seemed to think he provided the pitching Piniella wanted but was victimized by two unearned runs in the second inning, though the Reds came back to take a 4-3 lead in the fifth only to have Jackson give up a two runs in the home half.

Asked later if it is particularly frustrating to lose a close and important game in September, Jackson said, "I'd get upset if it happened in April. It's frustrating, period. I've been on the disabled list twice this year and want to help the team win. I feel like I'm making good pitches, but my luck is entirely bad and I'm tired of it."

The Reds could afford a more optimistic approach. Off today, they begin that favorable schedule Tuesday night against the Astros at Riverfront.

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