The Reds Got Horny on Opening Weekend

A new dugout tradition and a series win over the Pirates were good for team-building and positive vibes. We’ll take it!
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Cincinnati has celebrated 147 baseball Opening Days, and almost all of them were special in one way or another. This year was no exception. Despite a loss to Pittsburgh in the inaugural game of the 2023 season, Cincinnati clawed back to win the series behind several strong performances—and there was a particular moment that gave me hope that this year’s team will be, if not good, at least interesting.

Just when you think you’ve seen everything on the diamond, baseball finds a way to surprise you. That moment occurred in the bottom of the fourth on Opening Day, with the Reds trailing 4-1. With one out, Cincinnati rookie third baseman Spencer Steer, who had walked in his first at-bat, blasted a 2-2 pitch deep over the left-center field wall for the season’s first Reds home run.

The solo shot narrowed Pittsburgh’s lead to two runs, and it was encouraging to see Steer start out his season so well. After all, he’s a talented young player who has an opportunity to grab the job on Cincinnati’s hot corner and keep it for the foreseeable future. But in the context of a 162-game season, well, it was a homer and that’s always fun, but the Reds still had plenty of work to do to win the game.

Steer rounded the bases, stepped on home plate, and received high-fives from teammates Will Benson and Jose Barrero. As soon as he entered the dugout, however, he removed his batting helmet just in time for second baseman Jonathan India to place a viking helmet on Steer’s head. Then TJ Friedl draped a robe around Steer’s shoulders as he made his way through the dugout, receiving congratulations from his teammates.

The scene repeated itself for the rest of the weekend, with India, Kevin Newman, Jake Fraley, Friedl, and Jason Vosler sporting the horned viking helmet. Presumably, this ritual will continue throughout the season, and the Reds want you to know it’s a symbol of the fact that they intend to have fun this year. “It’s a huge culture thing,” Fraley said over the weekend. “It really gets the guys excited and brings guys together. It puts another dynamic to the team, and we didn’t have that last year.”

Fraley isn’t wrong: Cincinnati’s series victory on opening weekend provided a series of contrasts to last year’s club. I’m sure you remember last year’s early season disaster. The 2022 Reds entered the season on the heels of a fire sale that saw a number of popular players traded away and a few others on the injured list. They actually won two of their first four games before returning home, but then Phil Castellini vomited on himself before the first game at Great American Ball Park and things never improved.

The Reds lost 21 of their next 22 games, and the team looked shell-shocked the rest of the way. By the time the season ended, mercifully, Cincinnati had lost 100 games for only the second time in franchise history.

This spring, though, India and catcher Tyler Stephenson were vocal in their intent to take over a leadership role on the club. In particular, India was adamant that he was going to be the team leader. Many onlookers rolled their eyes a bit—this guy is only in his third season in the big leagues, after all, and can you really be a leader if you have to announce it to everyone?

It remains to be seen whether this “leadership” talk has any impact on the bottom line* but I can tell you this: The Reds were fun to watch this past weekend. After narrowly dropping the season opener, Cincinnati won 6-2 behind Nick Lodolo on Saturday, then Graham Ashcraft was dominant in a 3-1 victory on Sunday. [*To me, the bottom line is Cincinnati’s win-loss record. That phrase means something different to Reds ownership.]

Sure, the Pirates are bad, with most projection models predicting that they will lose nearly as many games as the Reds this season.* But if you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic that the Reds will be much improved this season, the signs were there. First of all, the Reds actually won the series. Cincinnati didn’t win a series last year until May 8, when they took two of three from (of course) the Pirates. [*Stupid computers. Don’t they know about the viking helmet?]

So we’re ahead of schedule! Some of the individual performances were notable, as well. Hunter Greene struck out eight batters on Opening Day, though he didn’t make it through the fourth inning. But Lodolo and Ashcraft combined for 15 strikeouts over 14 innings, allowing just three runs the next couple of days. Ashcraft was dazzling, throwing seven innings while allowing just one run on four hits in the third game of the season. It took 32 games last year for Cincinnati to have a pitcher complete six innings in a start.

The bullpen was shaky on Opening Day but looked good the following two games. On Saturday, the pen—specifically Ian Gibaut, Buck Farmer, Reiver Sanmartin, and Alexis Diaz—didn’t surrender a single walk or hit. On Sunday, Alex Young, Derek Law, and Diaz pitched two scoreless innings, allowing just two hits.

On the offensive side of the ledger, India backed up his leadership proclamation by performing on the field, with five hits in 13 plate appearances, including a homer, a double, two walks, and three RBI. Stephenson was similarly productive (.364/.417/.455), as were Fraley (.444/.545/.889) and Steer (.222/.417/.556). And we’ve barely mentioned Jason Vosler, a roster afterthought added only after Joey Votto was placed on the injured list late in Spring Training. Vosler has doubled, tripled, and homered in his eight at-bats. That’s a tidy slash line of .375/1.125/1.500. Who needs Votto if you have Vosler?* [*I assure you the Reds still need Votto.]

Listen, it’s just one series against a pretty bad team. But the Reds emerged from opening weekend in a tie for first place in the NL Central Division. After what we experienced last April, I’ll take it. My standards are pretty low at this point.

Chad Dotson helms Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His newsletter about Cincinnati sports can be found at chaddotson.com. He’s @dotsonc on Twitter.

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