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Reds at the break: Reasons for hope, reasons to doubt

Third baseman Todd Frazier begins every game by sitting down next to the photographers under the Fox Sports Ohio camera near the Reds’ on-deck circle.

A man of habit, Frazier sweeps the infield dirt off the concrete wall in front of him with his hands and watches the opposing starter throw two or three warm-up pitches. He does this every home game. In a way, it’s as if he’s wiping the slate clean. Every day is a new day, every game a new opportunity.

That’s the attitude the Reds (52-41 through Friday) need after the All-Star break this week. A season of promise is now a season of doubt. Is this team good enough to defend the division title or win the wild card and advance in the postseason for the first time in 18 years?

If you’re the fan typing the “#FireDusty” hashtag on Twitter or the fan waiting out a three-hour rain delay to see your beloved Reds, your guess is as good as any.

Here are three reasons for optimism with 68 games remaining and three reasons to burn your season tickets and start dreaming of football season.

The positive

1. Pitching excellence: The Reds ranked fourth in baseball in team ERA (3.41) through Friday. That’s not as good as last season (3.34), but not bad when you factor in the loss of Johnny Cueto, who has made only nine starts because of three stints on the disabled list.

Reds starters have a 3.38 ERA, and the relief corp, much maligned in June when it blew four games in a two-week stretch, has rebounded with one of the best stretches in team history. Until Friday, when Aroldis Chapman gave up a run in the ninth of a 4-2 victory over the Braves, Reds relievers hadn’t allowed a run in 10 games in a row, a streak of 32 2/3 innings — both modern franchise records..

2. Favorable schedule: The Syfy channel aired a movie called “Sharknado” on Thursday. It’s about, well, just what it sounds: sharks being picked up by tornados and dropped all around Los Angeles to cause chaos.

That’s no more terrifying for the Reds than their upcoming road trip to the west coast, where they always struggle. The Reds play 10 games against the Giants, Dodgers and Padres in the last 10 days of July.

However, if they can tread water on that trip, there is light at the end of the schedule.

Cincinnati plays 53 games in August and September, and 31 of those are Great American Ball Park. The Reds are 30-16 at home this season. The schedule is heavy on games against the Cardinals and Pirates, 16 in all. On the other hand, it also features 22 games against the Cubs, Brewers, Astros and Mets, four of the worst teams in the National League.

3. Playoff picture: The Reds have played .500 baseball since May 22. They’re four games under .500 since peaking at 44-29 on June 19. Despite those woes, they still have a strong hold on the second wild-card spot with a five-game lead (through Friday) over the Nationals and a 5½ game-lead on the hot Dodgers.

The negative

1. Inconsistent hitting: Since June 1, the Reds have scored three runs or fewer 19 times in 38 games. By comparison, the first-place Cardinals have done that 10 times.

The Reds seem to hit a lot or not at all. They have 21 runs in their two most productive games in July and 27 runs in the other nine games. Of the six position players who were regular starters last year for the Reds, all but Jay Bruce, who hit .252 last year and is at .273 this year, is hitting for a lower average.

2. Injury woes: This has been a problem since Opening Day when Ryan Ludwick slid headfirst into third and dislocated his shoulder. He’s expected to return in August, and if he can hit like he did last year, that would be a huge boost. The Reds have gotten little production out his replacements in left field.

Cueto, catcher Ryan Hanigan and relievers Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton are all currently on the DL. The only bright side here is the Reds could have them all back by the stretch run.

3. No hitting help: There are no saviors in the minor league system for this team. No one at Triple-A Louisville is hitting over. 300. The player everyone is excited to see at the big league level, Billy Hamilton, is hitting .245 with a .300 on-base percentage.

It’s the same at Double-A Pensacola, where the only player hitting over .300 is a 29-year-old second baseman named Ray Chang, who has been in the minors since 2005.

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