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Reds are all wound for mound rebound

The arrival of Steve Avery and Denny Neagle is expected to give Cincinnati's rotation a much-needed shot in the arm.

By BOB PUTNAM

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 1999


SARASOTA -- For Brett Tomko, spring training has been particularly staid.

The 24-year-old Reds pitcher and clubhouse artist has spent his days doing charcoal pencil sketches in the locker room and painting the corners of the plate in games.

"I've been able to slip back and relax," Tomko said Tuesday. "I think I've had to answer questions from the media twice this spring. No one bothers me. I get my stuff done and just go home."

The spotlight doesn't find Tomko these days. Tomko, who led Cincinnati in innings, starts and strikeouts last season, now has company in a rotation that's generating excitement.

The Reds had a mandate to make pitching their cornerstone. They patched up holes in their staff with a frenzied off-season, acquiring Denny Neagle in a trade with Atlanta and picking up free agent Steve Avery from the Red Sox.

Those additions, combined with Tomko, Pete Harnisch (team-high 14 victories last season), Jason Bere and Denny Reyes, give the Reds a staff others envy.

"You can't help but be excited about what we have," Tomko said. "Guys like Avery, Neagle, Harnisch, Bere and myself, you can put that type of staff up with anybody."

With the addition of Neagle and Avery, the Reds have four pitchers who won at least 10 games last season, a statistic matched by seven other clubs. Those seven teams made the playoffs.

Neagle belonged to one of those teams. He has been in the post-season with the Pirates and Braves, and his experience was something the Reds coveted when they traded for him.

But Neagle was uncertain about how his new team would fare. Sure, the Reds had plenty of pitchers, but the offense didn't exactly revive memories of the Big Red Machine.

"I was disappointed at first," Neagle said. "I just didn't know if we'd have enough firepower to bring in the runs."

The Reds soothed Neagle's concerns by getting 50 home-run hitter Greg Vaughn in a trade with the Padres and adding infielders Hal Morris and Mark Lewis.

"It was just a matter of time, and then, Bam!, we changed the whole complexion of our lineup," Neagle said. "Vaughn gives us that power, and Lewis and Morris can back up the younger guys, which is huge. I went from being disappointed to being excited. This team can contend with anybody. We have as good a shot as anyone in the NL Central."

After the Reds built up their rotation, it was up to Neagle to build camaraderie.

"I hoped to build that closeness," Neagle said. "That's something that was big in Atlanta. We'd catch movies, have golf outings or just hang out. In time, we'd start to talk about baseball. I think we've started that here, too. All of the pitchers went out for dinner, and we're planning another night out soon."

It's not all good news, however. Neagle has had stiffness in his shoulder and could be out the first 10 days of the season. Harnisch will start Opening Day.

Tomko has designs on a playoff spot for the first time in his career, and he pictures the staff leading the way.

"This is a great staff," Tomko said. "We can compare with the Braves, Dodgers and others. For me, I just feel fortunate to be a part of it."

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