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What to watch for on Reds’ Opening Day

After reaching the playoffs for the first time in 15 seasons last year, the Cincinnati Reds open their season at home against the Milwaukee Brewers this afternoon to begin their 2011 campaign. Here are five key factors for the Reds to reach the playoffs in back-to-back seasons — a feat the club hasn’t accomplished since winning consecutive World Series titles in 1975–76.

Avoiding the ‘sophomore slump’

In 2010, the Reds debuted two pitchers — Travis Wood, 24, and Mike Leake, 23 — who came into the starting lineup and flashed signs of dominance in giving the club a combined 13 wins between the two rookies.

With starting pitchers Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey battling shoulder injuries that have them on the disabled list to start the season, Wood and Leake will begin the season in the starting rotation. Building on their rookie success could be key factors in the Reds’ 2011 success.

Position to watch

After declining to bring back shortstop Orlando Cabrera, Paul Janish will enter the starting role. He is a player who isn’t talked about often, but he could have a huge impact on the season. His batting numbers have been weak, but have improved over each of his three seasons in the major leagues, while his defense has always been superior.

Reigning World Series MVP Edgar Renteria was signed in the offseason and will serve as Janish’s backup. Renteria will likely see significant playing time. Regardless of who ends up as the full-time starter, the shortstop position appears to be the most intriguing entering the season.

Names to know

Last year, players like Janish, veteran infielder Miguel Cairo and then-rookie outfielder Chris Heisey came up big when regular starters were injured or needed a day off. If injuries catch up to the Reds at any point this season, don’t be surprised to hear names like infielder Yonder Alonso, outfielder Dave Sappelt or infielder Chris Valaika get a chance to step into the starting lineup.

Alonso and Valaika both saw playing time for the Reds last season. Also keep in mind left-handed pitcher Dontrelle Willis, a former All-Star with the Florida Marlins, who signed with the Reds during the offseason but will begin the season in the Reds’ farm system.

All four players have the potential to play at the major-league level and make an impact.

Jay Bruce’s break-out season?

When outfielder Bruce was called up to the majors in 2008, he started off his career with three home runs and seven RBIs in his first week as a pro. Expectations were high, and when his numbers fell down to Earth, fans and the media were quick to grow impatient with Bruce.

However, Bruce’s batting average was .305 after the All-Star break last year, and he also hit 15 of his 25 home runs on the season in that time span. National League MVP Joey Votto’s rise to baseball stardom should take some of the pressure off Bruce, and the former first-round right fielder finally could have his break-out season.

No longer the underdog

The biggest challenge for the 2011 Reds is a simple one — they no longer can play the underdog card. They outdueled the perennially playoff-contending St. Louis Cardinals down the stretch and brought the NL Central crown to Cincinnati.

No one will be surprised when outfielder Jonny Gomes comes up clutch in the bottom of the ninth inning, or when the speedy center fielder Drew Stubbs uses his speed to reach first base on what appears to be a bad bunt. This year, the only surprise will be if the Reds aren’t competing for a playoff spot as October approaches.

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