The Reds offense had been feeling the squeeze the last couple of weeks as they’ve had to get by without the contributions of three key producers — Joey Votto, Mike Moustakas and Nick Senzel. Heading into Sunday, they scored only 35 runs over the previous 12 games — an average of 2.9 runs per game — and lost nine of them.
Manager David Bell has been forced to do things with his lineup he might not have done otherwise. He’s leaned on a rookie, Tyler Stephenson, to play nearly every day at either catcher or first base and bat in the middle of the order. Bell moved struggling power hitter Eugenio Suárez into the leadoff spot on Tuesday. Tyler Naquin has become entrenched as the regular center fielder. And where would this lineup be without Jesse Winker and Nick Castellanos?
On Sunday vs. the Cubs at Wrigley Field, all of those hitters contributed on the way to a 5-1 Reds victory that salvaged a win from the series. Cincinnati finished its six-game road trip through Washington and Chicago with a .500 record at 3-3.
“Obviously, we miss those guys a lot and we want them back, but just as far as going out here, rolling out a lineup and doing what we do and having confidence in everybody in that lineup and everybody on the mound, that’s what matters most,” said Naquin, who drove in two runs and leads the club with 33 RBIs. “Whenever those guys are ready to come back, for sure we’re going to need them, absolutely, but we’ve got a lot of confidence in what we’re doing.”
After being shut out on Friday and limited to two runs on Saturday, the Reds were able to ambush Cubs starter Jake Arrieta with three in the first.
Following back-to-back one-out singles by Winker and Castellanos in the top of the first inning — the latter extending the right fielder’s hitting streak to 16 games — Stephenson worked a 10-pitch plate appearance on Arrieta that included four foul balls during a full count before he walked to load the bases.
“I think that was a real key at-bat to that whole inning,” Bell said. “Tyler has been doing that. He’s got a great idea of the strike zone, very disciplined. For a young hitter, it’s very impressive.”
Naquin followed with a sacrifice fly for the game’s first run. Kyle Farmer hit a slow grounder between first and second base. Stephenson had to slow to avoid being hit by the ball, which may have forced an awkward force play throw from first baseman Kris Bryant for an error that left everybody safe. Tucker Barnhart was hit by a pitch to force home Castellanos and Jonathan India beat out an RBI infield single for the third and final run of the frame.
Leading off the Reds’ fourth inning, Suárez slugged an 0-1 Arrieta pitch to left field that landed at the back of the bleachers for a four-run lead. In five starts as the leadoff hitter during the road trip — the first five of his career batting first — Suárez went 6-for-20 with three solo homers and six runs scored.
Suárez still has a way to go to get out of his season-long hole as he’s hitting .163, but he has 12 homers in only 50 games.
“His timing is better, everything is coming into place for him. He’s taking really good swings,” Bell said. “He’s having good at-bats, too, where he’s getting deeper in the count, he’s seeing more pitches. When that’s happening and he starts getting his confidence back, he could get hot in a hurry. But yeah, it’s been a good week. I’m really happy for Geno.”
After Stephenson reached on an error and advanced on a wild pitch, he scored on Naquin’s RBI single to center field.
That helped make Reds starting pitcher Tyler Mahle’s day easier as he worked five scoreless innings with only one hit, one walk and eight strikeouts. Mahle was perfect through his first four frames but racked up his pitch count to 70. In a lengthy fifth inning, he issued a leadoff walk on four pitches to Ian Happ and lost the no-hitter on Willson Contreras’ single. But Mahle recovered and struck out the rest of the side to qualify for the victory.
“You play 162 of these things for a reason and sometimes you’re going to have a stretch or two that don’t go your way. You don’t panic,” Naquin said. “You find a way to adjust to what’s happening and figure out a way to come out on top, even if some of your guys go 0-fer or whatever. Just find a way to win.”