The Major League Baseball season is a long haul. For six months and 162 games, teams engage in a marathon campaign for an opportunity to play in October. Every team, even the very best clubs, will have a bad series here and there throughout the season; the worst teams will figure out a way to sweep a series at some point. Every baseball player and baseball fan has known this for more than a century.
And yet, every single season, baseball fans will reliably overreact to early season results. I vividly remember a conversation I had with a school chum (is that what the kids call their friends these days?) on April 22, 1990. The Cincinnati Reds were 9–0 that morning as we gathered in the cafeteria before school, and shortstop Barry Larkin was hitting .564/.600/.667.
I was, of course, basking in Larkin’s reflected glory, waxing poetic over the brilliance of the 26-year-old shortstop who was already a two-time All-Star. A friend stopped me short with this brilliant bon mot: “Larkin’s average has to come down.” Now, I knew it was true—no one has ever hit .564 over a full season—but I refused to concede the point. I was intoxicated by the early season success. I overreacted.
Alas, Larkin only hit .301 in 1990. (Please don’t tell my friend, wherever he is.)
Which brings me to the 2021 Reds and the season’s opening weekend, which saw a couple of drastic overreactions by fans. Both of which were completely understandable.
Let’s begin with Opening Day, the first contest in Cincinnati with actual fans in the stands in more than a year. There are plenty of reasons for optimism this year; after all, the Reds have a roster that should be very competitive in their division. Luis Castillo, one of the best pitchers in the National League, made the season-opening start for the second time in his career, and there was an actual buzz as he strode to the mound to deliver the first pitch of the campaign on a snowy afternoon at Great American Ball Park.
And…before the top of the first was over, the Reds were losing 6–0 to the hated Cardinals. Talk about deflating. Reds fans on twitter dot com immediately came unglued, but even sane fans would have been justified in thinking, Here we go again. After all, this is the same team that has recently wasted little time in showing us how bad they were going to be. Remember how the Reds have begun the season in recent years? 2020: 1–4. 2019: 1–8. 2018: 3–18.
Ultimately, the Reds lost 11–6 to their biggest rival on Opening Day, and the result obscured a few data points that should have been reasons for hope. First of all, the club’s offense, which had been the biggest weakness one season ago, scored six runs. Jesse Winker and Nick Castellanos each reached base three times; Castellanos and Eugenio Suarez each homered. Even better, the bullpen—about which there have been real questions—tossed 5.2 scoreless innings, surrendering just two hits while striking out seven hitters (and walking just one).
It wasn’t long, however, before the overreactions flipped in the other direction. In the third inning of Game 2, the Reds scored six runs, highlighted by a Tucker Barnhart homer, to take a 6–1 lead. One inning later, Castellanos—who had flipped his bat and danced to first base after his Opening Day home run—was plunked by Cardinals pitcher Jake Woodford. Castellanos clearly thought it was intentional, as you can see from his reaction.
Later in the inning, Castellanos scored on a wild pitch and performed the Flex Heard ’Round the World. Benches emptied, and it was madness for a little while.
Nothing gets Reds fans charged up like a bench-clearing incident against a National League Central rival. Cincinnati ultimately won 9–6, but the overreactions to the victory began even before the game was over. For example, some moron tweeted this ridiculous nonsense.
Things only got crazier on Sunday. Castellanos tripled in the fourth, then launched a bomb to center field in the fifth for his second homer of the season. The rout was on. Cincinnati ultimately won 12–1, taking two of three from a Cardinals team that many expected to be the best in the division. After one series, your Redlegs were tied for first place in the NL Central. (They remain tied for first after a series-opening win against Pittsburgh on Monday improved the Reds’ record to 3–1). For the first time in long while, life as a Reds fan seems pretty good, right?
As it turns out, there are still 158 games to go in this baseball season. You can’t draw any grand conclusions from four games. But if you’re looking for reasons to see the glass as half-full, you saw plenty of those in the season’s opening weekend.
First of all, the offense scored 32 runs in the first four games. Remember last year, when the Reds couldn’t even dent home plate a single time in that playoff sweep at the hands of Atlanta? Remember how Reds pitching put up great start after great start all season long, only to lose because the lineup couldn’t score? Prediction: If the Reds average eight runs scored per game, they will win a lot this year. (I can just hear the skepticism from my school chum as I type that.)
Also, the Reds won two of three with Castillo pitching poorly (he won’t continue to struggle, trust me) and with fellow ace Sonny Gray on the injured list. Tyler Mahle, Jeff Hoffman, and Jose DeLeon gave us reason to believe that the rotation will ultimately be as good as we hoped, especially once Gray and Michael Lorenzen return from their injuries.
Perhaps most importantly, the Reds played with a fire and intensity I haven’t seen from this team in a long, long time. Sure, this is just anecdotal, but I’m calling it like I saw it. The team was fired up all weekend.
This is another area where it’s easy to overreact. But after Saturday’s win featuring the Castellanos-inspired fireworks, Cincinnati’s right fielder was asked about his reaction to being hit by a pitch and the ensuing craziness. “I’m not here to disrespect nobody or whatever,” Castellanos said. “But I want to win. I’ve lost my whole career, and I ain’t trying to start the season 0–2.”
We’ve talked previously about what Castellanos can bring to this Reds team, and it was pretty clear that the team was taking its cues from the second-year Red. You have to love his response when asked whether he was the leader of this team: “Look, I ain’t out here to talk about me. I don’t know if I’m a leader. I damn sure ain’t a follower. But that’s not for me to say, you know? It’s for those guys to say what I am.”
Castellanos sure seemed like a leader to me, and his teammates could do worse than to follow his lead. On this point, an interesting note comes from the perspective of longtime St. Louis beat writer Derrick Goold. After witnessing the series-ending beatdown at the hands of the Reds, Goold wrote this:
The Cardinals bruised him, grabbed him, confronted him, and when they had a chance to gamely avoid him, they decided instead to challenge Nicholas Castellanos.
He let his bat do the flexing.
With a base open and a tie game, Cincinnati’s red-hot outfielder rocked a three-run homer and the Cardinals unraveling began.
For once, the Reds stood strong and the Cardinals unraveled. How many times have we seen the opposite happen in this rivalry? Is it possible that the 2021 Reds are different?
Oh, what the hell, overreact if you want. Baseball is back, and the Reds beat up on that team from St. Louis. This was a fun weekend of baseball, and you should enjoy it. I know I did.