HOUSTON -- It's not often they can say this, but the Reds are finding out they'll have some real rotation depth and an interesting battle for a spot. Ramon Ramirez has emerged this month as a quality candidate, even after his first big league loss, a 5-0 Reds defeat to the Astros on Wednesday. Over five innings, Ramirez gave up two runs and four hits with three walks and four strikeouts. Lance Berkman's two-run home run on a first-pitch changeup in the first inning accounted for the only runs Ramirez gave up, but the right-hander can take some solace. Berkman and his power have burned Reds pitchers before -- lots and lots of times.
"Young Ramirez threw the ball very well," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "He got a little changeup happy in the first inning. I think he threw 28 pitches and 20 of them were changeups. When you have an experienced hitter like Berkman, I'm sure he was noticing that, too." Adding the latest long ball to his haul, Berkman is batting .339 with 44 home runs and 124 RBIs against Cincinnati in his career. He has the most career homers and RBIs of any active opponent against the Reds. The home run came just after Ramirez appeared close to escaping an early jam. The right-hander began the first inning with Kazuo Matsui hitting a single and Michael Bourn drawing a walk. Miguel Tejada grounded into a 5-4-3 double play for two quick outs. Berkman lifted his homer the opposite way to left field -- his third against the Reds this season -- and made it a 2-0 game. Entering the night, the switch-hitting slugger was batting .150 (9-for-60) in September. "It was a high changeup, a hard changeup," said Ramirez through bullpen coach Juan Lopez's interpreting. "It was a bad pitch. If I located it good, maybe he'd hit a ground ball or fly ball. Bad location, and it went out." Ramirez kept the game close, as Houston notched only two more singles against him. "The first inning, I wasn't hitting my spots," said Ramirez, who came out for a pinch-hitter in the sixth. "After the homer, I was thinking about it, and my location was better." The Reds missed a chance to put a bigger squeeze on Houston's National League Wild Card bubble, as the lineup went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and stranded 12 on base. Astros lefty starter Randy Wolf (12-12) pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings and gave up eight hits and two walks while striking out seven. The best opportunity for the Reds came in the fifth, when Jeff Keppinger's single and Joey Votto's double put runners on second and third with one out. The rally fizzled when Edwin Encarnacion grounded out to the pitcher and Jolbert Cabrera struck out. "It's one of the first games in a while where we haven't picked up the runner," Baker said. "We just didn't pick them up tonight." The game got away from the Reds in a three-run eighth. Daniel Ray Herrera got into a one-out, bases-loaded jam. Baker called on another rookie, Josh Roenicke. But the right-hander walked Hunter Pence to force in a run and gave up Humberto Quintero's two-run single with two outs. "He threw his fourth-best pitch to Quintero, a changeup," Baker said. "That's part of the learning process. He was throwing 95-96 mph and throwing great. We're trying to find out what some of these guys can do, especially in pressure situations." The Reds have gotten a good chance to see what Ramirez can do. In five games, including four starts, he is 1-1 with a 2.67 ERA. Although he has walked 11, he has struck out 21. With Aaron Harang, Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto locked in for the top four rotation spots next season, the fifth spot will be a dogfight. Besides Ramirez, Micah Owings, Homer Bailey and Daryl Thompson will be among those competing. Ramirez plans to sharpen his skills during winter ball in Venezuela. "I know I need to come ready next year to win a spot in the rotation or bullpen," Ramirez said. "I have to show in Spring Training that I can do my job first to win that spot."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.