It is difficult to imagine that the 11-game homestand could have gone much better for the Cincinnati Reds, who put some icing on their cake with a 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday that secured them three consecutive home series wins in the past two weeks.
As 35,000+ rolled into Great American Ball Park early Sunday afternoon, the threat of rain and thunderstorms loomed. The weather was magnificent to say the least through the first four innings, but as Johnny Cueto was on the precipice of getting through the minimum of five innings in order for the game to count, the skies opened up.
The 56-minute delay coupled with the three-hour game made for another long day at the ballpark during a week that was chock full of them. Then again, with a smiling scoreboard, the Redlegs can retreat to the All-Star break happy.
A shadow of Francisco Liriano remains where the once dominant left-hander once stood. Twice having been named the Comeback Player of the Year, Liriano was a shell of himself on Sunday having returned from the disabled list to a tune of six walks over four innings.
Miraculously, he was burned only once, and by the unlikeliest of opponents. Kristopher Negron has had the proverbial “cup of coffee” up in the big leagues, but never having driven in a run in the show, it seemed logical to pitch to him with two outs, even with the light-hitting Johnny Cueto on deck.
Lost in the hoopla of Saturday night was the fact that during his pinch-hit appearance in the 11th, Negron narrowly missed tying the game with an opposite field home run. On Sunday against Liriano, he got the necessary distance as it sailed into a sea of red for his first Major League home run.
Twice the bases would be loaded during Liriano’s stint, but he wriggled out unscathed on both occasions. Throwing 94 pitches in the span of four innings, which, coupled with the impending rain spelled the end for the left-hander who saw his comeback ruined by a lack of command.
Johnny Cueto picked up the win, but his quality start left something to be desired. Setting the bar so extraordinarily high for himself, it seems any time Cueto does not mow through an opposing lineup, it serves as a shock. With that being said, his ERA sits at a stingy 2.13 heading into the All-Star break.
After returning to the hill post-rain delay, Cueto would allow two of his three runs. Fellow All-Star Josh Harrison drove in a run on a base hit and Neil Walker played lift-off into the sun deck, driving in his second run of the game. With Zack Cozart uncharacteristically making two errors behind him in the sixth, things got dicey for Cueto, but he would get pinch-hitter Gaby Sanchez to fly out to Chris Heisey to end his afternoon.
Speaking of Chris Heisey, many scratched their heads when they saw the third-string left fielder batting in the clean-up spot on Sunday. Pushing all the right buttons, manager Bryan Price watched as his tactical move made him look brilliant with Heisey going 3-for-5 with two doubles.
As a group, the Reds did not do an outstanding job of capitalizing on opportunities in the early half of the game—evident by going 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position and leaving 11 men on base. But the deathblow was delivered by not only the All-Star Todd Frazier, but the budding MVP candidate Todd Frazier. Heading into the break with an impressive slash line of .290/.353/.500 to go along with 19 home runs, 53 RBI and 14 steals, and playing Gold Glove defense, the Redlegs may have found themselves an MVP candidate in the unlikeliest of places.
Coming into the season, a healthy backend of the bullpen comprised of Sean Marshall, Jonathan Broxton and Aroldis Chapman seemed ideal. It took a while for the latter two members of that trio to get healthy, while the first member only got worse. Yet, as a silver lining, the Reds have discovered Jumbo.
After Johnny Cueto would exit, it was nine batters up, nine batters down. The trio of Jumbo Diaz, Jonathan Broxton and Aroldis Chapman gives opponents a roller coaster ride of speed and movement (Diaz), followed by precisely placed pitches (Broxton) and just blistering gas (Chapman).
Ending the homestand 8-3, even the three losses were all winnable games. Cutting the deficit of the Milwaukee Brewers to just a game and a half at the break, the Redlegs sit at 51-44. The long-term status of Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto are both extremely hazy, but in the short term, the majority of the club will get the next four days to recover and get back to full strength for the remaining 67 games.
The next time the Cincinnati Reds play, it will be Tuesday night in Minnesota. Johnny Cueto will not be competing, but Alfredo Simon, Aroldis Chapman, Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco all will attend and suit up.