It’s Been a Reds Season for the Ages So Far

Cincinnati’s rookies seem to set new records daily, but trouble looms if ownership doesn’t bolster the starting pitching.
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When the history of Great American Ball Park is written, last Friday night’s win over Atlanta will go down as one of the wildest regular season contests Reds fans have ever experienced. Before an exuberant sellout crowd of 43,086, Cincinnati extended its winning streak to 12 games behind 21-year-old Elly De La Cruz, who hit for the cycle, and 39-year-old Joey Votto, who clobbered two home runs in the 11-10 victory.

The way the Reds have been winning games—especially during the 12-game winning streak—is why Reds fans are in such a frenzy. The first piece of the equation is something we’ve been discussing here in the digital pages of Cincinnati Magazine all season long: these talented kids. De La Cruz was the star on Friday, becoming the fifth-youngest player in MLB history to hit a single, double, triple, and home run in the same game, but he’s far from the only rookie contributing. Matt McLain, Spencer Steer, and Will Benson are all well-above average hitters despite their inexperience, and lefty Andrew Abbott has been dazzling on the mound so far in his maiden campaign. More about the pitchers in a moment.

The second element in this winning mixture has been a lineup that doesn’t have a weak spot on most days, at least in the 1 through 8 spots in the order. Only De La Cruz has performed at a higher clip than Jake Fraley and TJ Friedl, and Votto’s strong return has strengthened a group that has opposing pitchers quaking in their cleats.

Cincinnati’s offense currently ranks fourth in the NL in runs scored, but since De La Cruz arrived on June 6 the lineup has shifted into overdrive. Only the Braves and Giants have scored more runs, and it’s not just the hitting. The Reds are taking the extra base every chance they get, and they lead the NL in stolen bases. Consider this: the entire Cincinnati squad stole 58 bases last year. In less than half a season in 2023, the Reds have already stolen 87. It’s a legitimately dangerous lineup.

Having a number of fun young players arriving at the same time and contributing to a potent and aggressive offense is great, but that doesn’t quite tell the story about why the 2023 Reds have turned out to be so delightful. The other element is that this club never stops fighting. Ever.

On Friday night, the Reds were down 5-0 in the top of the first inning. Later, they faced a 7-5 deficit, but Cincinnati kept scratching and clawing. As noted by Reds statistician Joel Luckhaupt, it was Cincinnati’s fifth consecutive come-from-behind win, matching their longest such streak since at least 1930. It was also the Reds’ third win this season after trailing by five or more runs, matching their total from 2018-2022 combined.

Of the 12 wins during the recent streak, the Reds trailed in seven of them. They now have 26 come-from-behind wins, more than any other team in either league. It’s also one more comeback win than they had all of last year, and we haven’t even reached July yet.

Even the two losses to the Braves over the weekend demonstrated the never-say-die spirit of these Redlegs. On Saturday, the Reds faced deficits of 3-0 and 6-2 before finally succumbing, 7-6. In the series finale, another 7-6 loss, Cincinnati trailed 3-0 and 6-3, but the team continued to battle until the final out. It’s been a consistent theme all season long.

My friend and co-author Chris Garber has been trying to remember the last time the Reds fielded a team that was as fun as this one:

I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, and the only Reds team that was as exciting and fun as this one was late 1986. That team had Eric Davis finally establishing himself, Kal Daniels arriving at 22 with a 917 OPS. Barry Larkin arrived in August.

Tracy Jones turned out to be a radio host, but he was a 1st rounder who hit .349 with speed. Tom Browning was coming off a 20-win season, the bullpen had John Franco and some young studs, and Paul O’Neill debuted in September. Kurt Stillwell was playing SS at 21. … And if you liked the old timers, you still had Rose, Pérez, Concepción, Parker, Buddy Bell, and Bo Diaz.

That was a really cool team to watch.

That was a fun team, with a number of similarities to the current club, but I think the 1999 Reds may be an even better comparison. As Big Randy said on Friday night, “[the] 1999 vibes are strong.”

I’ve written about that 1999 team a lot, and if you were around to experience that season you remember them fondly, I’m sure. The offense was led by Greg Vaughn (45 homers, 118 RBI), Sean Casey, and Barry Larkin and was by some measures the best in the National League. They surprised everyone by winning 96 games and fell just short of the post-season when they lost to the Mets in a one-game playoff. Al Leiter is still dead to me.

In 1999, the Reds had 45 comeback wins and even had a 10-game winning streak in late June. That team didn’t have young talent that could compare to the current Reds; Casey (24), Aaron Boone (26), Mike Cameron (26), and Pokey Reese (26) were the youngest everyday players. But they did have a particular identity as a team that never quit. They even earned the nickname “The Big Road Machine” because of their spectacular 51-30 record away from Riverfront (not Cinergy) Stadium.

Ultimately, that 1999 team was felled partially by a pedestrian pitching staff that couldn’t match the brilliance of the offense. I fear that will be the fate of the 2023 Reds if management doesn’t improve the staff in the next five weeks.

Cincinnati’s pitchers surrendered 24 runs in the weekend series against Atlanta. The staff’s ERA is second-worst in the National League at 4.98; if you look only at the starting pitchers, the situation is even worse—Reds starters have a collective 5.91 ERA this season. Young studs Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo are currently on the injured list, and Graham Ashcraft just returned from injury (and has looked shaky). The Reds have given 39 starts this season to a rotating cast of characters filled mostly by pitchers jettisoned from other organizations: Luke Weaver, Ben Lively, Luis Cessa, Connor Overton, Derek Law, and Levi Stoudt.

Lively has actually been decent, but he’s now on the injured list as well. Abbott emerged earlier than expected, fortunately, but Cincinnati is in dire straits. Despite a dynamic offense that’s scored 388 times this season, the pitching staff has surrendered 410 runs. If General Manager Nick Krall doesn’t improve the staff soon, I fear that we’ll be comparing the Reds to the 2005 team, which led the NL in runs scored behind the efforts of Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr., and Casey but finished 73-89-1 thanks to a pitching staff that gave up more runs than any team in the National League.

Just over two months ago, the Reds played a game in front of only 7,375 fans, the smallest crowd in the history of Great American Ball Park. Now the team is playing in a playoff atmosphere, with energy coursing throughout the stadium. The Reds are way ahead of schedule, and even three consecutive losses since the recent winning streak can’t dampen my enthusiasm.

Reds fans are jazzed, and the crowds this weekend show that fans will return. Do the Castellinis care? There are five weeks until the trade deadline. We’ll find out soon.

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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