CHICAGO -- Think of any way the Reds could have started their most important road trip of the season, and Tuesday's 7-3 loss to the Cubs might be a more-demoralizing option Z. "Definitely not the way we wanted to start it off," Reds starter Aaron Harang said. Winners of four straight, and coming off a 5-2 homestand, the last thing Cincinnati needed was for Harang to struggle.
But did he ever. Harang had control problems, and lasted only 4 1/3 innings while throwing 108 pitches. He gave up six earned runs on only five hits while walking a career-high seven batters. Chicago had a 6-1 lead when he departed. "I walked seven?" said Harang, who also struck out six. "There's always going to be a first for something. I just felt like I was making some good pitches. Obviously, they weren't good enough. Every inning, I threw a lot of pitches. You can't do that and expect to be in a game very long." Harang, who was originally slated to start Saturday at home vs. the Nationals, was moved back to the Cubs series opener because of a stiff forearm. The right-hander said it wasn't a factor Tuesday. "The forearm felt fine. No problems tonight," Harang said. The radar gun might have indicated otherwise. Harang's fastball velocity hovered mostly in the low 80-mph range, but he did reach 90-91 mph on a few occasions. He usually throws in the low-to-mid 90s. "This is puzzling here," manager Dusty Baker said. "It's gone on for quite a while. We certainly need to get him on track." Harang had already issued five walks through three innings, but could consider himself fortunate that only two runs scored on sacrifice flies by Geovany Soto in the second and Aramis Ramirez in the third inning. But in the fourth inning, after a Mark DeRosa leadoff walk, second baseman Mike Fontenot smoked an 0-1 pitch over the center-field fence for a two-run homer and 4-1 Chicago lead. In the fifth, following Derrek Lee's leadoff walk, Soto launched a two-run homer into the left-center-field bleachers and finished Harang. "A lot of pitches in a short period of time, especially that second inning," Baker said. "He had a lot of near strikes out there. They were just out of the zone." Cubs starter Ryan Dempster (10-3), who improved to 10-0 at Wrigley Field this season, had a prettier outcome. The best chance for the Reds to get to Dempster came in the fourth inning, when he issued all four of his walks, including one to Paul Bako with the bases loaded that plated Ken Griffey Jr. Harang struck out to end the fourth, and Dempster went on to retire his final 10 in a row while giving up just two hits over seven innings. The Reds were robbed of hits a couple of times, namely Jerry Hairston Jr., who was foiled by two nice diving plays at third base by Ramirez. The game also featured a combined 14 walks. "They had a lot of walks, too," Baker said. "They capitalized on theirs, and we didn't capitalize on ours." Harang's increasingly forgettable season has him the owner of a 3-11 record and 4.76 ERA. What should be most disconcerting for the Reds is his record in eight starts since making a four-inning emergency relief appearance at San Diego. It's 1-5 with a 7.31 ERA. In the 11 starts before that fateful 18-inning game, Harang was 2-6 with a respectable 3.50 ERA. When asked if he was feeling healthy, Harang took a long pause. "Sometimes yeah, sometimes no," he responded. "It varies from day to day. Some days you wake up and feel great. Other days you feel like trash. Some of the days I've woken up and felt like trash were days I was pitching." It's not hyperbole to say this six-game road trip is the most critical of the Reds' season, as they head into the All-Star break. They get to play the first-place Cubs and contending Brewers from the National League Central. A .500 record is not far from reach. Going into the break with momentum and optimism would be huge as the club decides what to do before the Trade Deadline. "The main thing is we're back in our division," Baker said before the game. "This is when we can pick up ground or lose ground. Hopefully we can get hot and pick up some ground." Harang will have one more chance to help in that regard when he pitches the first-half finale Sunday. Then, some much-needed rest will follow, and perhaps a chance to get himself right again. "A couple of more extra days of rest, it will do everybody some good," Harang said. "It's always nice to get those extra days and not worry about going to the yard. It's a lot of mental recovery time too. The season is a physical grind. It's a mental grind too."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.