The Reds are two-thirds of the way through a nine-game homestand, and over those first six games, the team has started to show some signs of life. Cincinnati has gone 4-2, notching series wins over the Giants and then the Astros, and has pushed its season record back to .500 at 11-11. Even more encouraging, the Reds offense has started to awaken from its early season slumber. They scored four or more runs in all six games.
Jay Bruce led the charge. He stuffed every part of the stat sheet, going 10-for-21, driving in 10 runs, scoring seven, and hitting a home run in each of the last four games. He even stole a couple of bases. For his efforts, Bruce was named the National League Player of the Week, an honor he will surely cherish for the rest of his life.
And Bruce wasn’t the only Red swinging a hot bat last week. Brandon Phillips scored six runs, hit his first triple of the year, and raised his OPS above .700 for the first time this season. Scott Rolen hit his first home run of 2012. Then he hit another one. Yes, Scotty’s batting average is still below the Mendoza Line. But the way he’s been playing this year, fans will take what they can get. Ryan Hanigan had six hits in four games, raising his average from .219 to .283. Unlike his teammates, Joey Votto returned to GABP already playing well, and he continued to produce, contributing six extra base hits and six runs batted in.
Enough boring statistics. The thing I found most remarkable about this homestand was that in a game that regularly takes three hours, a single momentary play often decides the outcome.
In the first game, against the Giants on April 24, Brandon Phillips batted with two outs and a runner on base in the bottom of the first inning. With two strikes, Matt Cain threw him an off-speed pitch in the dirt. Home plate umpire Vic Carapazza ruled that Phillips tipped the ball into catcher Buster Posey’s mitt. Strike three. But then first base umpire Gerry Davis ruled that the ball had hit the ground, meaning Phillips would stay at the plate on the foul ball. Replays showed that Davis was right, the ball did hit the dirt, but they also showed (convincingly, to my eye) that Phillips didn’t make contact. It should have been a regular old strikeout. But the at-bat continued, and on the next pitch, another changeup, Phillips blasted a home run, putting the Reds up 2-0. The Reds never relinquished the lead, winning 9-2.
The next day, the Reds rallied in the seventh after falling behind 2-0. Rolen led off with his first home run since July of last year. Then the Reds tied the game with a hit, an error, a walk, and a sac fly. Small ball at its best. That left runners on second and third with two outs. The Giants brought in reliever Jeremy Affeldt to face Joey Votto. The second pitch he threw was wild, very wild, flying to the backstop and giving Hanigan time to scamper home from third with the winning run. The Reds won 4-2 in a game that lasted exactly three hours. The decisive play took roughly four seconds. And that was only because Hanigan is slow.
In the series finale against the Giants, the Reds went into the ninth inning leading 5-3. Closer Sean Marshall gave up a walk and a single to start the inning. Then after a strikeout, Angel Pagan smacked a three-run home run. The Giants won 6-5. I think games like that are why we tend to wildly overvalue closers. Yes, it’s not that difficult to pitch one inning. Yes, top line starting pitchers are more important than the closer to a team’s chances. But is there any worse way to lose a game than blowing it in the ninth? The Reds played winning baseball for eight long innings. It didn’t count for anything.
Against Houston, the Reds split the first two games of the series, setting up the rubber match on Sunday. With the score tied 5-all in the eighth, Bruce smacked his fourth home run in as many days to win the game. It was a wonderful example of why, even after the shame of the steroid era, we worship home runs. Baseball is built on suspense. Most of the time, nothing is happening. The pitcher is staring in at the signs. The fielders are smacking their hands into their gloves, ostensibly in an effort to stay awake. The batter is fouling off pitches. The catcher is visiting the mound. Various men are spitting or adjusting themselves. But then, with no real warning, a slugger like Bruce will connect with a ball and send it screaming into the seats. And suddenly the last 30 minutes of watching a bunch of dudes stand around and make outs and not make outs and stand around some more all seems worth it.
Tonight begins a three-game set with the Cubs. More blood-pumping moments are sure to ensue.