CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Reds' best chance in the World Series is that nobody in his right mind would pick them to win. If the Oakland A's aren't serenely overconfident, they aren't paying attention. And the A's don't miss much.
Aside from the obvious -- that the 103-win A's are a better team than the 91-win Reds -- the A's have most of the subtle strategic advantages too.
Cincinnati is far stronger against left-handed pitching (.280 vs. .257). Several of the Reds' key hitters -- Chris Sabo, Eric Davis, Todd Benzinger, Mariano Duncan and Joe Oliver -- are very dangerous against southpaws, but below average to pathetic against righties.
All of Oakland's starters, as well as its two best relievers, are right-handed.
Who's going to hurt the A's? For the Reds to contend, little-known hitters like Paul O'Neill and Hal Morris (.378 vs. righties) will have to drive in Barry Larkin and Herm Winningham. Ouch.
The A's have a devastating lineup against left-handed pitching. Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Dave Henderson, Willie Randolph and Terry Steinbach all are righties. Willie McGee and Mike Gallego switch-hit.
What do the Reds have? Two of their three starters are southpaws and two of their three "Nasty Boy" relievers are lefties. Tom Browning and Danny Jackson better be at the top of their games. As Big Leo told Matthew Broderick about the Kimodo Dragon in "The Freshman," "Don't let that thing get on top of you or you are in major trouble."
The Reds win with defense, as the Pirates learned. But Cincinnati's defense deteriorates on grass (41 errors in 48 games), especially its flashy infield. The A's dislike artificial turf because it aggravates their injuries, but they can play on it, especially with McGee.
The Nasty Boys are the Reds' greatest strength -- some would say their only true strength. "If we can get into our bullpen, we're a tough team to play," said Lou Piniella after his team's six-game victory over the Pirates in a playoff dominated by co-MVPs Rob (0.00 ERA) Dibble and Randy (0.00) Myers.
But can the Reds get to their bullpen four times in seven games? Jose Rijo, Browning and Jackson hold the key -- and the Series -- in their hands. They were adequate against Pittsburgh, lasting 34 innings in six starts with a 3.44 ERA despite 20 worrisome walks. The Reds' defense and the Pirates' inefficient hitters got them out of a lot of jams.
Rijo, 25, whose 14-8 season was the best of his 53-52 career, has an enormous load to bear; he must face Dave Stewart, the game's best pressure pitcher, three times if the Series goes seven games (no laughter, please). Rijo was red hot the last two months, but didn't frighten the Pirates, who may hit righties better than the A's.
Browning is a tough guy who has won 20 games and has a .600-plus career mark, but he pitches much better on the road where grass infields and deeper fences help him. However, he'll probably start Game 2 at home. Jackson might be a better pick for a team that desperately needs to start fast in Riverfront.
Jackson may be the Reds' hope. A natural athlete who loves the spotlight, he was fabulous in the '85 postseason for the world champion Royals. He was almost as good as Orel Hershiser in '88 when Jackson was 23-8. And, after recovering from ankle and shoulder injuries, he may be back in '88 form, allowing only one misplayed hit in six innings of Game 6. This is no 6-6 pitcher. Jackson can power-pitch to lots of A's who don't like high fastballs and low-inside sliders. If he matches up with slumping Mike Moore twice, he could win twice.
That's the daydream anyway.
The Reds' euphoric state of mind may prove to be a problem. In a huge slip of the tongue, Dibble said, "Whoever wins the World Series I really don't care. We're just happy to be there." He recanted: "We're not worried about them. Let them worry about us." His first version had the ring of truth.
Ironically, the bad news for the Reds is that all the A's disadvantages are the ones Oakland faced in '88 against the Dodgers. So, presumably, the A's will be doubly on guard.
Then, the A's hitters got rusty because of a long layoff after a playoff sweep. Then, the A's grossly underrated a star-shy Los Angeles team that depended on team play and pitching to survive. Then, the A's were ludicrously overconfident.
This time, the A's face a five-day layoff, plus nagging injuries to several key hitters -- Canseco, McGee, Rickey and Dave Henderson.
Once again, the A's confront a team with no superstar, except an Eric Davis whose shoulder hurts so badly that he hit .174 against the Pirates. The Reds have no player -- and this is amazing -- with more than 25 homers, 85 RBI, 30 steals or 15 wins. The pitcher who started the All-Star Game and keyed the Reds' spring blowout of the NL West -- Jack Armstrong -- is now too lame to start.
The heart of this new Red Machine, at least on Friday, was its collection of spare parts -- Ron Oester, Luis Quinones and Glenn Braggs. Stunt Men?
As for A's overconfidence, that's moot. Canseco already has predicted back-to-back sweeps so the A's can buttress their claim to being the best team ever. Is that necessarily a bad attitude? Remember, Moses Malone once said, "Four, four, four," when he was in Philadelphia and the 76ers almost swept the entire NBA playoffs. Sometimes, haughty goals are good -- if you happen to be great.
Because of the Reds' intimidating bullpen, as well as their defensive range and decent team speed, Cincinnati is a far better foe for the A's than the pathetically overmatched Red Sox. The Reds, at least in their dreams, can manufacture humble runs for an early lead, then make enough fine defensive plays and wave to the bullpen often enough to make those slender margins hold up -- in a short series.
The A's harbor a World Series fantasy of roughly equal improbability. The A's want to make history with a repeat Series sweep and the first perfect 8-0 postseason.
Only the '27-'28 Yankees of Babe Ruth and the '38-'39 Yankees of Joe DiMaggio have swept the Series back to back. And, since division play, only the '76 Reds were 7-0 in October.
Greatest ever? In a sense, the A's will be competing against the memory of the old Reds as much as the reality of the new Reds.