Tight competition for last spot in Reds rotation

The rotation, or the bullpen? Cincinnati, or Louisville? Me, or him?

Right-hander Matt Belisle and left-hander Bobby Livingston can’t get those late-in-camp questions out of their minds for very long these days.

With one week left before opening day, the Cincinnati Reds’ starting rotation has only one opening. Belisle, Livingston and, to a lesser degree, right-hander Kirk Saarloos are wondering which of them will stay and which will go someplace else – to the bullpen or to Triple-A Louisville.

“It’s human nature,” Belisle said Sunday, after pitching the first four innings of a 3-2 loss to Toronto. “What really brings it up is you’ve got to get an apartment set up. That’s when it comes to the forefront, to be honest. You realize it’s almost over, and you don’t know where you’re going. You can’t hide from it.”

In a two-day span, the three competitors are getting one final chance to make their case on the mound.

Belisle gave up two runs Sunday, double his total coming in. The 26-year-old pitcher has done well this spring, compiling a 2.08 earned run average in games with the major league team.

After his disappointing 2006 season – two stints on the disabled list because of a sore back – he came to Florida determined to win a spot in the rotation. Belisle has been mainly a reliever in the last two seasons, making seven starts and 83 relief appearances.

“I’m ready,” he said. “I came in with the mind-set to prepare for that (rotation) and believe in it. I’m ready to take it.”

Whether he gets the No. 5 spot will be up to manager Jerry Narron, who won’t have a clear-cut decision. Livingston also has pitched well, giving up only two runs in 9 2-3 innings. The left-hander will start Monday against Boston.

“Belisle has been outstanding all spring,” Narron said. “I didn’t really know Bobby Livingston, but he’s done well. They’ve really all done well.”

The 24-year-old Livingston was claimed off waivers from Seattle in December. The 27-year-old Saarloos came from Oakland in a January trade. Saarloos pitched three innings Sunday, lowering his ERA to 5.02.

Narron isn’t going to read too much into the final appearances of the three, all of whom have minor league options left and could be sent down.

“You’ve got to look at the whole body of work,” Narron said. “You’ve got to look at experience. You’ve got to look at a lot of things other than their last outing.”

The rotation is one decision away from being settled.

Right-handed starters Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo give the Reds one of the best 1-2 combinations in the NL. Harang led the NL in wins and strikeouts last season, while Arroyo led the league in innings pitched. Together, the had all the team’s nine complete games.

Things become murkier after those two.

Left-hander Eric Milton has been a big disappointment during the first two years of his three-year, $25.5 million contract. Right-hander Kyle Lohse, who went 3-5 with a 4.57 ERA for the Reds last season, is the No. 4 starter.

That leaves only one opening and a lot of fretting.

“It seems like every week a question like that comes up,” Belisle said. “I’ve really tried to work on not knowing what’s going on with everyone else in that regard and to focus on what I need to do.

“It seems like every year it comes down to the wire like this.”

During a few spare moments last week, Livingston mentioned that the uncertainty was weighing on him.

“I’ve done all that I can do,” Livingston said. “I’ve got to try to stop thinking about it.”

That’s tough to do at this time of the year.