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Reds ready to begin the Baker era

Reds ready to begin the Baker era

Come Monday, Reds fans will want to see "the Dusty difference" for themselves.

Playing under new manager Dusty Baker for the past six-plus weeks at Spring Training, the Reds players already have -- even if they can't always put their finger on what it is, exactly.

"I don't know how to describe it," veteran left fielder Adam Dunn said. "It's just a different feeling. There's a different feeling around the clubhouse."

A Red since 2001, and the second-most tenured player on the club, Dunn knows this much -- his team has endured seven straight losing seasons. During that time, the Reds have had little direction, fractured clubhouse chemistry and numerous managers.

"We had no structure, nothing," Dunn said. "He's coming in and basically putting his mark on us. I think it's very easy for him to do because he has all of our respect. He got that early."

Baker's efforts began before camp opened, and were evident from the first day. Unfamiliar with many of them, he requested that players not wear pullover jackets the first few weeks so he could see their names and numbers. He would speak fluent Spanish to players that use it as their first language. The 58-year-old took advantage of a rarely-used high perch above the camp's practice fields so he could watch workouts while taking copious notes. He continued to take detailed notes about his players' performances after exhibition games began.

When he once saw players not performing drills and fundamentals with their full effort early on in camp, Baker nipped it in the bud quickly. He held a meeting and addressed his disapproval. Veterans, like Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr., were personally asked to offer leadership to younger players and set good examples.

"If he doesn't like it, he's going to tell you," Dunn said. "Before, maybe you'd hear it from a coach or someone else. I like that about him."

As Spring Training neared an end, Baker believed his players have bought into his philosophy.

"I hope so. Six weeks isn't a long period of time," Baker said. "There are some shadows you have to get rid of, definitely, that were there. You know, like losing. It wasn't that difficult. Guys were receptive."

Baker realized there would be plenty more character tests for his players, especially after the regular season starts.

"You see who the men are when things are going poorly," Baker said. "Do they continue to hustle and bust butt? That shows you what kind of ballplayer and person you are. When things are going good, it's easy to do things right -- real easy."

While the Reds have tried to mentally prepare themselves to stop the cycle of losing, it still takes tangible additions to make it happen. That was done before camp with the signing of free agent closer Francisco Cordero to a four-year, $46 million contract. Cordero, who saved 44 games last season for the Brewers, immediately improved a bullpen that constantly disappointed in 2007.

The other weakness, the rotation, has been infused with new blood. A wide-open battle for the back three spots yielded two promising but unlikely winners. While Matt Belisle and top pitching prospect Homer Bailey were presumed the pre-camp favorites, it was 21-year-old prospect Johnny Cueto who earned a spot with stunning performances that wowed scouts and teammates. Another young Dominican, 24-year-old Edinson Volquez, did likewise. Veteran Josh Fogg, signed during camp's first week, secured the rotation's No. 4 spot.

The other major camp battle was for the starting center fielder's job. Top prospect Jay Bruce didn't win the spot as many fans hoped, or expected. It appears that late signee Corey Patterson, who previously played for Baker on the Cubs, has claimed the job with a solid spring. Patterson was once a top Chicago farmhand who struggled at times in the big leagues.

"For a guy that came in late, he's looked pretty good. He was very good actually," Baker said. "He's doing things you would have hoped he'd done it earlier than now, but everybody doesn't get it at the same time or same pace. He was on-job training in the big leagues. That's difficult."

Last season, the Reds finished a disappointing fifth place in the National League Central division with a 72-90 record. That type of year would normally offer little optimism to build on for the following year. But there has been little talk of last year.

This is a different team. This is Baker's team, no doubt about that.

"You have guys that work harder, getting here earlier and ready to go each day," said rotation ace Aaron Harang, who will be the Opening Day starter. "There's more continuous effort. When everybody gets in, they're trying to produce, one way or another. It all starts from your manager coming in from Day 1. He's pushed and told us how he wants it. Guys believe in him because they've seen his track record of taking mediocre teams to the playoffs."

But will Baker's presence, and his difference, equate to more wins? That's what Reds fans desperately hope.

Pitching matchup
CIN: RHP Aaron Harang (16-6, 3.73 ERA in 2007)
Harang is starting his third consecutive opener for Cincinnati and is 1-1 in the past two opening games.

ARI: RHP Brandon Webb (18-10, 3.01 ERA in 2007)
In eight career starts vs. Cincinnati, Webb is 4-2 with a 2.83 ERA -- including one complete game.

Short hops
The Reds are 60-62-1 in their history on Opening Day, with the tie coming in a 5 1/3-inning official game shortened by rain vs. the Brewers on April 3, 2000. ... This is the first time the Reds have opened a season against the Diamondbacks. ... In 2007, Cincinnati won the season series, 4-2, but the Reds are 16-29 vs. Arizona since 2001.

On the Internet
 MLB.TV
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• FSN Ohio

On radio
• WLW 700 AM

Up next
• Tuesday: Off day
• Wednesday: D-backs (RHP Dan Haren, 15-9, 3.07) at Reds (RHP Bronson Arroyo, 9-15, 4.23), 7:10 p.m. ET
• Thursday: D-backs (LHP Doug Davis, 13-12, 4.25 ERA) at Reds (RHP Johnny Cueto, 0-0, 0.00), 12:35 p.m. ET

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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{"content":["opening_day" ] }