The month of May has been good to the Cincinnati Reds. They have gone 7-4 through a Cardinals, Cubs, Mets and Pirates slate.

The hitting is coming around, currently ranked fifth in the N.L. with 158 runs scored. But the major turn-around as been courtesy of the starting pitching.

After a magical one-hit complete game shut-out by Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey followed suit. He gave up a whopping five hits over a complete game shut-out. The legendary Dayton Daily News beat writer Hal McCoy sums it up best:

“Reds pitchers gave up one run over 27 innings. The Pirates third base coach was as lonely as a cop directing traffic in the Arctic Circle”

Bailey (1-2) needed only 90 pitches—73 for strikes—to close out the Reds’ fifth straight win. He did not go to a three-ball count the whole game and only went to a two-ball count four times.

“That’s the epitome of pitch conservation right there,” manager Dusty Baker said. “He followed Johnny Cueto’s lead right there. That’s the most well-pitched two days that I’ve seen in a long time.”

Cueto and Bailey become the first pair of Reds pitchers to fire back-to-back complete-game shutouts since Jose Rijo  and Tom Browning accomplished the feat on June 9 & 10, 1989 at Los Angeles.

Bailey loves the Pirates—he has a 5-0 record lifetime against the AAAA club. Sure he got rocked against the Cubs last week, but he seems to have found out how to conserve his pitches better than in the past. He is still a work in progress, but the 23 year-old is finally learning from previous mistakes.

Couple the terrific past two days with a seemingly revived Aaron Harang, a steady Bronson Arroyo a phenom in the making in rookie Mike “who needs the minors” Leake, and the Reds suddenly have one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball.

Sure the ERA and wins, loss records aren’t there. Yet after a rocky month of April the Reds hold 16 quality starts—sixth in the N.L.

Sure it’s only May, there is plenty of games to be played (128 to be exact), but the season is over 20 percent complete.

Still too early to declare 2010 “the year”, last season the club was 26-20 at one point. But this team has the right chemistry. No more aging stars with ego’s too big for the clubhouse. No Corey Patterson’s or Willy Taveras’. Just a lot of youngsters that are enjoying the ride that is being a Major League baseball player.

Reds media relations guru Jamie Ramsey blogged about how manager Dusty Baker took the team out to dinner Sunday night. Baker seems to genuinely like this team:

“He gave a heartfelt post-dinner speech to the guys in which he called the group “special” and told the guys to believe they can win this season.  It was nice and the team responded to it.  There was a nice energy in the room”

Dusty picked up the check for the whole team too!

On the offensive side, the veterans (Scott Rolen, Brandon Phillips, Orlando Cabrera, Johnny Gomes) are starting to put up numbers usually expected when looking at the back of their respectiveve baseball cards. Joey Votto is on his way to the All-Star game, and even Jay Bruce has righted the ship.

“He’s been much better,” Baker said. “We try to give him some theories and philosophies. We have talk to left-handers who can hit left-handers.”

Baker has had Bruce talk to Luis Gonzalez and Raul Ibanez.

Bruce’s splits are pretty even this year, quite the opposite of ’09. He went into Wednesday hitting .250 off left-handers and .273 off right-handers. He has two homers off LHs and two off RHs, even though he had 49 more at-bats vs. righties.

He is second on the team with 16 walks and seems to not fall for the garbage in the dirt as much over the past few weeks.

So all is well in Red Leg land, but a larger question still remains. Can this team compete with the division leading St. Louis Cardinals? Beating the Pirates is one thing, but getting Albert Pujols out consistently is a whole different beast.

Nobody likes to throw the term “must win series” out in May, but the Reds need to take two of three to let themselves know it’s not just a one team race in the N.L. Central. The Reds sit only one game out of first, but it feels like the gap is much wider. This weekend the Reds can prove that’s not the case.

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