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Harang shaky as Reds drop opener

Harang shaky in opening loss

CINCINNATI -- Only one week ago, the Reds enjoyed an off-day after a six-game winning streak had surged them to 6 1/2 games out of first place in the anything-can-still-happen National League Central.

They had finally pushed and shoved their way just beyond a velvet rope seeking entry to a hot spot where only an A-list of teams is permitted -- a pennant race.

For good reason it appears, access was denied. The latest bouncers were Pedro Martinez and the Mets, who handed the Reds a 10-4 loss on Monday afternoon. Cincinnati's record dropped to 2-6 since flirting with contending, including the current four-game losing streak.

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"Intensity is down some," said center fielder Josh Hamilton, who went 2-for-3 with two infield singles. "I think the off-day hurt us a little bit coming off those six games. It would have been nice to keep rolling the next day. The intensity isn't there, I don't know. It's getting towards the end of the season and [people are] getting itchy. I missed a couple of months so I'm itchy to play."

Last week featured being swept in a doubleheader at Pittsburgh last Tuesday and a three-game series sweep at St. Louis over the weekend. On Monday, the Reds were given a crack to spoil the return of Martinez, who made his 2007 debut while coming back from rotator cuff surgery.

Martinez (1-0) didn't have all the tools that won him three Cy Young Awards, but he had enough to put down the Reds. With velocity hovering in the 70s to high-80s, he gave up three runs -- two earned -- on five hits over five innings with three walks and four strikeouts. His fastball reached 89 mph once.

"The guy used to throw 90-plus with a really sharp breaking ball and a great changeup -- electric stuff," said first baseman Scott Hatteberg, who caught Martinez when they played for the Red Sox. "He doesn't have that right now. Obviously, he's coming off surgery and it's his first time back. His stuff, as far as him being able to pitch, it's still there. The guy knows how to pitch. His command was really good."

Cincinnati came out aggressively in the first inning. Hamilton squibbed an infield single up the third-base line, and Alex Gonzalez drove a double to the left-field wall. Hamilton was sent home on Ken Griffey Jr.'s shallow fly to center field, and slid safely feetfirst just ahead of a tag at the plate. Brandon Phillips' RBI single made it a 2-0 game.

"It looked like it was going to be a pretty high scoring game for us. I felt pretty good," Reds interim manager Pete Mackanin said.

After that, Martinez retired nine in a row.

The only other Reds run against Martinez was unearned when Carlos Beltran booted Hatteberg's two-out single to center field for an error that scored Adam Dunn from first base. The Reds went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position and stranded nine on base.

"All those things you read about in the textbook to be a successful pitcher -- that's what he did," Mackanin said. "And with less stuff than he used to have. Movement on pitches, deception and location are more important than velocity."

Entering the day needing only two strikeouts to collect 3,000 for his career, Martinez became the 15th pitcher to reach the milestone when he easily fanned Reds pitcher Aaron Harang for the third out of the second inning.

"To be honest, I didn't know he was going for it," Mackanin said. "It doesn't concern me. I'm happy for any success Pedro has. I like him very much. However, I wasn't real pleased about losing today. Whatever endeavors he has in the future, I'm happy for him. But today, I didn't really care."

Trying to prove why he should be considered elite among the NL's Cy Young contenders, Harang (14-4) wasn't sharp either. The right-hander was tagged for six earned runs and 10 hits over 5 2/3 innings with one walk and six strikeouts.

Moises Alou led off the second by hitting a Harang first-pitch fastball into the left-field seats for a solo homer. In the Mets' third, David Wright hit a two-run homer to right field for the go-ahead run. The deficit widened in the sixth, when Alou got a double out of a fly ball that dropped between Phillips and Griffey in shallow right field. Alou scored on Shawn Green's double and pinch-hitter Ruben Gotay added an RBI single.

That was the end for Harang, who was coming off a two-hit shutout of the Pirates on Wednesday. In nine games after he pitched eight or more innings in his previous start, he is 3-4 with a 6.39 ERA (50 2/3 innings, 36 earned runs). It's the kind of stat that should doom any fleeting Cy Young talk.

"It boiled down to that Aaron Harang didn't have the command he's used to having with his stuff," Mackanin said. "He was just missing off the plate. He was not as good as he's been in the past and it hurt him a few times."

Before going home for the offseason, the Reds have a chance to help take some contenders with them behind that velvet rope. With 24 games remaining, 17 are against teams with a shot at the playoffs -- including the next 14 straight against the Mets, Brewers, Cardinals and Cubs.

To play spoiler, they'll have to play better than they've played lately.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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