By Marc Lancaster

RedsRyan Freel's speed and versatility
have made him a valuable
member of the Reds.
Freel has started every game so far this season.

Image - Majaor League Baseball

CHICAGO – Give Ryan Freel this much: He's well aware of the few limitations he has on a baseball field. Standing in the on-deck circle Sunday, an inning after taking Greg Maddux deep for his first home run of the season and one of seven hit on another gale-force day at Wrigley Field, the utilityman started to hear it from some Cubs fans near the Reds' dugout.

"The fans were sitting there telling me 'Don't hit another one,' " said Freel. "And I was like, believe me, that's going to be the only one I hit. You don't have to worry about that."

Home-run power was the newest wrinkle in Freel's repertoire Sunday, and even if he considered his fifth career big-league homer a fluke, it was just one more facet of his game for opponents to fuss over and teammates to savor. There were standouts galore in the Reds' 10-inning, 11-10 triumph against the Cubs, but on a day made for big boppers and a team built around them, Freel continues to prove his worth to the Reds. He went 3-for-5 Sunday, scoring two runs, stealing two bases and generally making a nuisance of himself. In other words, his usual day at the office.

"He's something that, since I've been here, we haven't had, and that's a guy that can pretty much play everywhere who's just crazy on the bases," said Adam Dunn. "He's so fast and he just makes things happen and puts a lot of pressure on the other team." Dunn knows something about that, even if the type of threat he represents is more blunt force (he stroked two long homers Sunday) than Freel's Chinese water torture. But there's a reason Freel has started every game for the Reds this season. Minor-league journeyman no more, he has become an indispensable part of what the Reds are trying to do.

Freel's home run down the left-field line in the fourth put the Reds back on top after the Cubs had chipped away at the 3-0 lead Cincinnati had grabbed in the first inning on a Dunn homer.

In the seventh, Freel followed Dunn's second blast by singling to right off LaTroy Hawkins, who had just entered the game. With one out, Freel stole second and moved to third on Jason LaRue's groundout before being stranded when Wily Mo Pena struck out. Freel was the leadoff man in the 10th off Cubs closer Joe Borowski, and lifted a fly ball to right that Sammy Sosa lost in the sun, allowing it to drop in for a single. LaRue popped out while trying to bunt Freel over to second, so Freel simply took it himself for his team-leading third steal of the year. A rattled Borowski walked pinch-hitter Javier Valentin, and Juan Castro sent a shot off the wall in left-center, a standup triple that scored the last two runs the Reds needed on another crazy day at the ballpark.

"You get a guy like that and you don't have to waste an out to bunt a guy over and score a run," said Barry Larkin. "You just let him go and do his thing." Afterward, Freel said he was thankful for the opportunity to even be in the game at that juncture. Manager Dave Miley has made a habit of putting in a defensive replacement for Freel late in games, either Castro or Ray Olmedo. When an obvious double-switch situation arose in the bottom of the seventh, with lefty Phil Norton coming in out of the bullpen, Freel was expecting to head to the dugout. But it didn't work out that way. Castro came in to play third, but Freel moved to right field as Pena came out of the game.

"That's awesome that he didn't take me out," said Freel. "I knew we were going to double-switch, and I was thinking the whole time my game was over. Sure enough I saw Castro bringing my (outfield) glove out there, and I was glad he kept me in the game. I was able to get a base hit, steal a base and get into scoring position and it worked out great." As Freel will be happy to tell you, the art of manufacturing runs is his game. He will gladly leave the home-run hitting to his larger counterparts and get down and dirty, which he invariably does several times a game. It's an endearing trait, and the Reds have embraced it wholeheartedly.

"I heard in spring training they were considering trading him, and I was like 'Oh my gosh,' " said Larkin. "I think that would have been a horrible move. Thank goodness it didn't happen. He's showing his value, he's great to have."


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