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REDS OFFER ANOTHER REMINDER: IT'S A LONG SEASON

Maybe starting a season 6-14 isn't cause for panic.

The Anaheim Angels had that record through 20 games last year and ended up winning the World Series. The Cincinnati Reds were similarly mired this year but have quickly turned their fortunes around, going 15-6 in their next 21.

One difference, however, is the Reds have done most of the work without their marquee player. Center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. was out for more than five weeks due to a dislocated shoulder until returning Wednesday.

So far, yet another Griffey injury hasn't doomed the Reds. Quite the opposite, it has allowed several other players to grab the spotlight.

Outfielder Adam Dunn went into the weekend tied with Milwaukee's Richie Sexson for the major league home run lead with 14. Teammate Austin Kearns had 13 and was third in the National League in RBIs with 35.

Closer-turned-starter Danny Graves has established a career high in innings for four straight starts, culminating in Wednesday's four-hit shutout he fired at St. Louis. Graves has dropped his ERA from 7.81 to 4.56 in that span and a Cincinnati Enquirer report joked that "calls to sports talk radio about putting him back in the bullpen have dropped to 0.00."

Griffey's return, in fact, has caused some chemistry troubles as hot-hitting outfielder Jose Guillen has demanded a trade upon losing his starting slot.

Guillen, who began the year in Louisville, started 18 straight games until sitting Wednesday. In those 18 games, he hit .356 with five home runs and 18 RBIs.

"I didn't expect it so soon," Guillen said of his benching. "(Reds General Manager Jim) Bowden told my agent Junior wasn't going to play right away. This is a tricky game. There's nothing I can do about it. Trade me. I'll go somewhere else."

The Reds want to keep Guillen, especially in case Griffey breaks down again. Guillen is one of three players to hit walk-off home runs on the team's homestand last week, and the Reds went 6-1 in a seven-game stretch against the defending NL Central champion Cardinals.

"It tells you maybe we're for real," manager Bob Boone said of his club's success against St. Louis. "It helped us more than it hurt them."

The Reds' late-inning magic finally brought them some happiness at their new home, Great American Ball Park. The stadium, which was built next door to the now-imploded Cinergy Field, has proved to be a launching pad for batters.

One reason: Pitchers are complaining the mound is too low and too flat. Reds officials insist it's up to specifications but pitchers will keep griping if the ball keeps flying out.

Around the horn

Isn't it time baseball suspend games and pick them up later rather than wiping them out entirely when the rains hit? The Indians and Mariners waited out a 2 1/2 -hour delay Thursday largely because umpires understandably didn't want to bag Seattle's 7-0 fourth-inning lead.

But a real monstrosity occurred Sunday in Wrigley Field, where the Cardinals' 11-9 lead over the Cubs in the fifth inning was turned into a do-over by heavy rain and wind. Seven homers were erased, including two by Tino Martinez and a grand slam by Albert Pujols. Of course, the Cards can't wipe out the torn ankle ligaments suffered by right fielder Eli Marrero while chasing a fly ball in the wind.

Had the game counted, by the way, the 11 runs allowed by Cubs starter Matt Clement would have bumped his ERA from 3.95 to 5.74.

How did Clement allow 11 runs? Good question. Cubs fans are fretting over the high pitch counts manager Dusty Baker is allowing starters to ring up. Kerry Wood threw 141 in seven innings last Saturday against St. Louis and Mark Prior threw 124 in six innings Monday in Milwaukee.

Baker is ignoring the pitch-count police, noting he once saw David Cone throw a 150-pitch shutout and that Fernando Valenzuela routinely threw 130 pitches with the Dodgers.

"One thing I take pride in as much as anything is that over the years my pitchers have stayed healthy," Baker said. "I'm very cognizant of that. I ask every inning what the pitch counts are. My theory is that I put (heavy work) on the bullpen at the beginning of the year and then I put it on the starters as we get later."

Kansas City started the season 11-1. Since then, the Royals were 13-14 entering Friday's game against Toronto. Blame the bullpen, which has been blowing up with regularity. Ex-Bison Albie Lopez is struggling with an ERA of 9.47 and nearly started a brawl Wednesday at Minnesota because he was upset the Twins were waving another run home with a 7-0 lead.

The Elias Sports Bureau, baseball's statistical arm, reports that the .161 batting average in April by Oakland's Miguel Tejada is the worst first month for a reigning MVP in at least the last 20 years. He entered the weekend hitting .320 in May.
e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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