It was a test, a torture test, for first-year manager Bryan Price and he has more than passed, scrambling with an endless stream of mix and match lineups and batting orders and patching leaks with role players.
It began in spring training when starting pitcher Mat Latos required knee surgery. Pitcher Homer Bailey missed three weeks of spring training. Catcher Devin Mesoraco went on the disabled list. Closer Aroldis Chapman suffered the hideous facial injury when slammed in the face by a line drive.
So Price and the Reds began the season with an arsenal already pillaged and, to nobody’s surprise, the team started the season 3-8.
Rookie center fielder Billy Hamilton, whom some believed needed at least one more year in Triple-A, started the season 0 for 12 with six strikeouts and struck out all four times he batted on Opening Day.
Johnny Cueto pitched like a Cy Young Award winner to start the season and for most of the first-half, his earned run average was under 2.00 and led the league. But the team couldn’t score runs for him and his won-loss record was below .500.
As the season progressed, the Milwaukee Brewers kept winning and putting distance between themselves and the rest of the division. And things didn’t improve much on the medical front. Joey Votto, the $225 million first baseman, suffered a quadriceps injury and landed on the disabled list. Gold Glove right fielder Jay Bruce tore the meniscus in his right knee and underwent surgery.
And Price kept plugging the holes as the team struggled to find the .500 level and keep itself from sinking to the bottom of the Ohio River.
There were signs, though, that if the team could get completely healthy the parts were there.
Knowing that Latos was coming off elbow surgery in the offseason, but not knowing he would wreck his knee the first week of spring training, Price decided during the winter that he would stretch out relief pitcher Alfredo Simon during spring training — just in case.
When Latos was unable to pitch, Simon was dropped into the starting rotation. It was a stroke — not the bad kind, a stroke of genius. By the All-Star break, the 255-pound right hander had won 12 games to lead the National League.
And Billy Hamilton’s raw talent quickly surfaced. It was expected he would steal bases and he did, with regularity. The shocking thing was his defense — highlight catch after highlight catch from a guy who signed as a shortstop and was transformed into an outfielder in a short span of two years.
Mesoraco missed the first seven games and when he returned for 13 games he hit .468 with three home runs and 13 RBI. Then he lapsed back onto the disabled list for almost three weeks.
One of the big question marks was whether Todd Frazier could handle the bat and handle third base. Through the early medical problems, he was the one rock-solid piece. He hit, played Gold Glove third base and made the All-Star team, along with Mesoraco, who continued to hit and drive in runs when he returned from the DL in early May. Cueto and closer Chapman also made the All-Star team.
But it was two months of major struggles. Then Votto returned, although still hobbling, and Bruce returned from knee surgery after only three weeks. Cueto continued to pitch on a top of the mountain-top level and began to win.
The nadir was an 8 1/2-game deficit and fourth place and only the Chicago Les Miserables Cubs were below them in the standings.
Things snapped into place in June. The Reds went 18-10 in June to keep pace with the Brewers, who also went 18-10. Then the Brewers began losing, a stretch during which they lost 10 of 11. Their skid was started when the Reds took two of three from them in early July. The Reds have handled them all year, winning seven of the 10 games they played against the Brewers.
In a span of 17 days, the Reds scrambled from 8 1/2 games out of first place to 1 1/2 just days before the break.
Through it all, two facets of the Reds never wavered. As a former pitching coach, Price is big on pitching and defense. The starting pitching staff of Johnny Cueto, Alfredo Simon, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Mat Latos was the best in the business. The defense was the best in the league with fewest errors and best defensive percentage and eye-popping and jaw-dropping plays by shortstop Zack Cozart, third baseman Todd Frazier, second baseman Brandon Phillips, center fielder Billy Hamilton, right fielder Jay Bruce and left fielder Ryan Ludwick were commonplace.
But on the last week before the break, the training room began to fill up again. Votto went back on the DL. Brandon Phillips tore a ligament on his left thumb diving for a ball and required surgery and an absence predicted at six weeks. Skip Schumaker banged his head on the right field wall trying to catch a ball and was placed on the seven-day concussion disabled list.
"Man, this is something else. After patching ourselves up after six weeks and start playing well, it all starts (injuries) again, we’re getting hit with injuries again," said Price. "But we endured before and we’ll endure again.
On the last Friday before the All-Star break, playing against Pittsburgh, Price had only three position players on the bench. When starter Mat Latos suffered back spasms and had to leave after five innings, pitcher Mike Leake pinch-hit for him.
Jay Bruce, who had never played first base professionally, volunteered and Price used him at first base for several games — a Gold Glove right fielder, who had never played first base, volunteering to help out.
Price also used catcher Brayan Pena at first base and third baseman Todd Frazier at first base because without Votto the team had no legitimate first baseman to plug in.
Price, though, believes in the rotation of Pena, Frazier and Bruce through the first base door and said, "Those are great options. I don’t want to have Bruce over there a bunch because he is a premiere right fielder and I don’t want to take him out of that position. And we have a premiere third baseman in Frazier. Pena is going to catch some. In some games, I might want Bruce in right, Frazier at third and Pena behind the plate, so there is another opportunity and maybe that’s where Ryan Ludwick comes into play. That’s potentially another option."
Ludwick hadn’t played first base since he was five years old, but he quickly ordered a first baseman’s glove and began taking ground balls at first base.
Outfielder/infielder Schumaker is in awe of what Bruce volunteered to do.
"It’s awesome what Jay is doing," said Schumaker. "It just shows what kind of team we have here. You talk about a guy with a big-time future in this game in right field willing to take a bullet for us and go play first, that’s not an easy task. I’ve done it before, move from the outfield to the infield, and it’s a tough thing to do. The game is so much faster, there are so many things to think about, like where to be. And you have big guys hitting balls hard at you."
On the night Latos left after five innings, the Reds were down 5-1, and they were still behind 5-3 in the eighth inning, facing left hander Tony Watson, 5-0 out of the Pirates bullpen.
Mesoraco led the eighth with a home run. Then came four straight singles, a game-tying single by plug-in second baseman Ramon Santiago, who had three hits, and a tie-breaking single by pinch-hitter Brayan Pena and the Reds won, 6-5.
"Fortunately, the All-Star break couldn’t come at a better time for us," said general manager Walt Jocketty. "The four days off gives us a chance to rest all these injuries."
Through it all, manager Price’s upper lip stiffened and the smile never left his face, quite an accomplishment for a first-year manager scrambling to put competitive teams on the field night after night after night.
"For me, to stress over the fact that we have only three bench players for a night and a team that is banged up doesn’t do any good," he said. "And I don’t feel any extra pressure because of it because it is the hand we are currently dealt and we just play it. And to the credit of the players, they are playing their tails off."