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Reds skipper not surprised by team's rise

By Todd Lorenz / MLB.com

CINCINNATI -- Entering Monday's series finale with the Astros, Reds skipper Dave Miley is a little more than a quarter of the way through his first full season as a big-league manager.

So far the season has the makings of a fairy tale ending.

Ranked as one of baseball's worst teams in many preseason polls, Miley currently has his club perched atop the NL Central standings at 25-18, in a first place tie with the heavily favored Chicago Cubs.

"I'm just happy we're playing good baseball," Miley said.

While he might be inexperienced when compared to some longtime Major League managers, Miley knows enough to realize that it's only May and there are still a lot of games to be played.

That said, he's not all that surprised by the Reds rise from nowhere for a couple of reasons -- starting pitching and defense.

Cincinnati's starters led the Majors with a 5.77 ERA in 2003.

As of Sunday, the group owned a combined 4.67 ERA. Excluding the four starts by now-departed Jimmy Haynes, the Reds current rotation has a 4.33 mark. The biggest change has been their focus on throwing strikes.

Only Philadelphia has allowed fewer free passes than the Reds. In 43 games this season, the Reds have issued three or less walks 31 times. Not coincidently, the team is 22-9 in those games.

"They've done a good job," Miley said. "They really have. I'm not surprised with what they did in Spring Training that the success has carried over to the regular season. When you walk a lot of guys you turn the lineup around and have to face the heart of the order more."

You also have guys losing focus in the field -- something Reds' fans saw plenty of last season.

Cincinnati errors led to 78 unearned runs in 2003. This season, despite their 28 errors, the Reds are on pace to let in about 57.

"[The pitchers] have confidence in the guys playing behind them," noted Miley. "That gives them more confidence to throw the ball over the plate. It goes hand-in-hand. The guys are playing good defense behind them and they don't have to get extra outs."

At the same time, defenders don't grow roots while their pitchers nibble at the corners.

"Every time you have to be ready," said second baseman D'Angelo Jimenez. "But when your pitcher is throwing strikes, you have to be more prepared. You have more concentration and get early jumps to the ball because sometimes if a pitcher doesn't have location, you don't know where he's going to throw the ball. So you aren't prepared the right way.

"Right now the pitchers are doing good and it helps us defensively."

Just another number: After hitting the 490th home run of his career, the Reds have placed a counter between the center-field smokestacks in preparation of Ken Griffey Jr. hitting his 500th homer.

While Griffey appreciates the gesture, he's staying laid-back about joining the 500 club.

"I don't pay much attention to anything that's behind those walls," he said. "It's another countdown. There are countdowns for everything. It's baseball. Everything has a number."

However, 500 is a number he never expected to reach. At least not when he was a 19-year-old rookie with the Mariners.

"Heck no," he said. "No way. I thought I'd be a player more like my dad. He's who I wanted to be like and he never hit many home runs."

Griffey might not pay much attention to it, but he didn't waste any time putting it to work. The Cincinnati slugger hit No. 491 off the batter's eye in right center field to lead off the second inning. The homer tied him with Fred McGriff for 21st place on the all-time home run list.

Spark plug: The Reds are 8-2 with Ryan Freel hitting in the leadoff spot this season, so it's no surprise that he was back there again for Monday's finale with Houston.

According to hitting coach Chris Chambliss, it's also not a huge surprise that the Reds tend to win with Freel in front.

"He's working counts and not swinging at bad pitches," Chambliss said. "He's gotten some nice hits for us and he's a very energetic player. That adds a lot for us at the top of the order. When somebody's energetic and he can run, bunt and put the ball in play when he need to, those are the major qualities for a leadoff guy."

Nice start: Brandon Larson, who has been on the disabled list since May 9 with a strained left quadriceps muscle, began a rehab assignment with Double-A Chattanooga on Sunday by going 2-for-5 with a solo homer and a double.

Larson had a turf toe injury earlier in the season and was sent to Chattanooga instead of Triple-A Louisville because the Bats had a four-game series with Syracuse, who plays on artificial turf.

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