After an off-season in which the Reds worked really hard not to improve their team, two of the biggest questions surrounding the 2021 club were (A) who will be the shortstop, and (B) who will pitch the eighth and ninth innings? There still isn’t a good answer to the first of those questions, as the Eugenio Suarez experiment at shortstop is not showing many signs of being a success. As for the second question, well, Reply Hazy, Try Again.
When the Reds gave away Raisel Iglesias and Archie Bradley essentially for free during the off-season, the back of the bullpen burden fell to Amir Garrett and Lucas Sims. Garrett, in particular, was vocal about his desire to be the closer, though it’s not exactly breaking news that he might be vocal about literally anything. He’s made his name in the big leagues by being brash, having fun on the field, and occasionally trying to fight an entire dugout of Pirates. The fact of the matter is that, given the depleted state of the bullpen, the Reds absolutely need Garrett to be the very best version of himself.
At his best, he’s been spectacular, but even the most devoted Amir fan would have to concede that he’s been inconsistent over his career. The last couple of years, he’s pitched in 90 games, posting a 3.03 ERA. Good numbers to be sure, but the fact that he surrendered 54 hits and issued 42 walks in just 74.1 innings pitched—not to mention the 11 home runs allowed—is an indication of how it’s often been an adventure when Garrett runs in from the bullpen.
That sizzling fastball and occasionally unhittable slider are so intriguing, however, that it wasn’t difficult to dream about Garrett developing into a lights-out closer. Was this to be the year? Not so fast, my friend.
Garrett had an abbreviated spring training thanks to left forearm soreness, but he made his season debut on April 5 against the Pirates. He picked up the second save of his career, and though he gave up a long home run to the leadoff hitter (along with a single and a walk), he embraced the spotlight that comes along with being a closer. After the game, he said, “I want everybody to think that the Cincinnati Reds are, like, the cockiest team ever. We’re some bat flippin’, show boatin’, son of a guns and I want everybody to know that.” The Rowdy Reds were born.
Two nights later, he entered in the ninth inning of a game the Reds led 11–0. By the time he threw his 20th pitch, Garrett had given up four runs on three hits, including another homer and a walk. His ERA stood at 22.50 and everyone was concerned, at least a little, even if no one was really ready to mention it out loud.
Then the bottom fell out. In four appearances between April 20 and April 26, Garrett lost one game and blew saves in two others. His numbers in those games: 2.1 innings pitched, with five runs allowed on three walks and three hits, two of which were home runs. It seemed like every time an opponent made contact, it was a laser somewhere on the field. At this point, panic began to set in, at least for portions of the fan base. It got so bad that Garrett, normally an ebullient presence on social media, was forced to delete his Twitter account because of abuse from moronic “Reds fans.”
Given the general lousiness of the bullpen—currently holding the fifth-worst ERA in baseball—Garrett’s struggles were even more magnified. But then Cincinnati’s no-hit hero Wade Miley came to the rescue. He noticed that Garrett was “leaking his front side” when he delivered his pitches, essentially giving hitters a little better view of the ball before it was released. To be sure, Garrett had been watching video, working hard to figure out the issue, and he thought Miley might have a point. During his next outing, against the Dodgers at the end of April, he pitched a clean inning in a blowout loss for the Redlegs. Things began to feel better.
Then the Chicago Cubs came to town. With the Reds down by a run in the eighth inning on May 1, Garrett entered the game and immediately struck out Cubs slugger Anthony Rizzo. By this time, you’ve seen what happened next: Garrett screamed at Rizzo*, Javier Baez leapt out of the Chicago dugout to defend his teammate, and benches emptied. [* I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about Garrett’s antics on that particular day and whether they were appropriate. In general, I fully approve of his “show-boatin’ son of a gun” routine, as it seems to get him in the right headspace to be a competitor on the mound. Opinions vary on what happened that day. I choose to defend the guy wearing a Cincinnati uniform.]
When the dust settled, Garrett calmly recorded the final out of the inning. The next night, he entered in the top of the 10th inning (with the silly ghost runner on second that MLB has mandated for this year) against the Cubs and promptly struck out two hitters, with an intentional walk between them. Manager David Bell came out to bring in right-handed Ryan Hendrix, and you could see the excitement on Garrett’s face as he walked back to the dugout. “I’m back!” he screamed (to no one in particular this time). When Hendrix collected the final out of the inning, Garrett jumped over the railing and greeted his teammate. The Reds won the game in the bottom half of the inning.
MLB, of course, suspended Garrett for seven games for the bench-clearing dustup with the Cubs. (The suspension was ultimately reduced to five games; Baez received just a fine, the latest in a series of baffling MLB decisions that deserve a 1,000-word column of their own.) But nearly lost in the glare of the controversial suspension is this: Garrett is starting to look an awful lot like the closer he said he wants to be.
Since Miley’s tip about his delivery, Garrett has pitched five scoreless innings in five games, striking out eight and walking just two (one of which was intentional). Of the 18 hitters he’s faced, only one collected a hit. “I was getting my groove back when I got suspended,” Garrett said. “I’ll just pick up where I left off and be all right.”
So far, so good. But when he was asked directly about the suspension, Garrett said this: “Live and learn. I learned not to have fun.”
Yeah, right. If you think Amir Garrett is going to stop having fun on the baseball field, you haven’t been watching him for the last half-decade. But that personality and brashness fit the 2021 Reds perfectly. This team is made for fun (even if it isn’t made for maximum wins). They really are bat flippin’, show boatin’ sons of guns. And, yeah, they’re a game under .500 nearly a quarter of the way through the season, but they haven’t been boring.
Let’s hope Amir really does have his groove back. Because he makes these Reds even rowdier. That’s something, right?
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.