Cincinnati Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart (16) is congratulated by third base coach Steve Smith (35) after Barnhart hit his first career home run off Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Marco Estrada (41) during the fifth inning at Great American Ball Park. The Reds won 8-3.
CINCINNATI — There was a hole in the Reds lineup last season when it came to the catching position. Defensively Ryan Hanigan and Devin Mesoraco were fine but offensively their place in the batting order was a trouble spot the entire season.
This season has been a different story. Whoever has been putting on the catching gear has produced behind the plate and with the bat in their hands.
Thursday night Tucker Barnhart and Brayan Pena each hit home runs as the Reds opened a crucial four-game series against National League Central division-leading Milwaukee with an 8-3 win at Great American Ball Park. Barnhart’s first career home run tied the game, 1-1, in the fifth inning, while Pena’s pinch-hit two-run homer broke a 3-3 tie in the eighth inning.
Mesoraco was the team’s hottest hitter when he went down with a hamstring injury last weekend in Atlanta but there has been drop off in production with him out of the lineup.
The trio of Mesoraco, Pena and Barnhart are hitting a combined .370 with a slugging percentage of .630 through the first five weeks of the season. Brandon Phillips leads the Reds with 29 hits this season but the catchers have produced 40 hits total, including 10 doubles, six home runs and 19 RBI even though they have consistently hit in the bottom third of the order.
"Hopefully it’s not just a month in," said Pena. "Devin, before he went down, was doing a great job. He was hitting the good, he was catching good and for us as backups, and I’m talking about myself personally, I’m just trying to go out there and do my job and help my team. My number one priority is just help my team whatever it takes.
"We’re prepared. We’re working very hard with (hitting coach Don) Long and (assistant hitting coach Lee) Tinsley. We go in the cage early and we put a lot of work in our hitting. Good things have happened."
Mesoraco is hitting .468 with an on-base percentage of .508 and a slugging percentage of .787. He has three home runs, six doubles and 13 RBI. Pena is now hitting .319 with an on-base percentage of .373 and is slugging .532.
Barnhart is up with the Reds for the second time this season. He started the season on the roster as Mesoraco was on the disabled list with a strained oblique muscle. Hitting isn’t Barnhart’s forte — he was batting just .250 at Triple-A Louisville, although he had a slugging percentage of .455 — but besides the home run off of Milwaukee starter Marco Estrada he also added a sacrifice bunt just before Pena came to bat in the eighth inning.
The Reds congratulated Barnhart for his home run with a beer shower. He reached for a changeup and pulled it deep to right field, over the wall and onto the top of the netting covering the Milwaukee bullpen. The official distance was 337 feet but it’s as good as a 500-footer for Barnhart.
"They guys were really happy for me and it was one of those things where it was definitely good to get it in a win," said Barnhart. "When I hit it, I thought it was a fly out to right. I put my head down and started to run. Then I saw the right fielder (Mark Reynolds) keep going and said ‘Oh man, it’s got a chance.’ Eventually I saw it, fireworks went off and it was all happy smiles after that."
Hanigan was hampered by injuries last season and Mesoraco was just learning to earn his keep at the major league level. The pair, plus Corky Miller, had a total of 580 at-bats last season and produced a batting average of .224 and a slugging percentage of .326. The Reds got just 11 home runs, 26 doubles and 71 RBI from the catching position in 2013.
If you extrapolate this season’s offensive start from the catchers over 580 at-bats, the Reds will get 54 doubles, 32 home runs and 102 RBI. The Reds got 189 total bases from the catching position last season. They are on pace to get 366 total bases this season.
Production behind the plate is tougher to quantify. There is always the catcher’s ERA but how comfortable a catcher makes the pitcher on the mound is as important as anything else.
Homer Bailey had his best game of the season. He went eight innings, allowing three runs on eight hits. He retired 12 of 13 batters at one point, allowing just a walk in the process, before the Brewers tied the game with three straight two-out hits in the seventh inning.
He was comfortable on the mound.
"From all standpoints I really felt like I had control of the ball tonight," said Bailey. "All of those guys are very focused during the game and even in the meetings before. You can tell it’s a big part of their game and that they want that. On the flip side, offensively it looks like they’re preparing well. Even Tucker, who doesn’t have a whole lot of starts or a whole lot of at-bats, you can tell behind the plate he’s got an idea of what he’s doing there.
"I felt really good with him back there. I could throw anything because it wasn’t going to get by him."