CINCINNATI – Two games into the sort-of second half of the season and the Reds have done what they’ve needed to do against Pittsburgh to cut into their deficit against Pirates for second place in the NL Central. It hasn’t been pretty, but then who cares?
Aroldis Chapman had arguably his most impressive performance of the season in earning his 23rd save of the year when he got out of a first-and-third, no-out situation in the ninth inning to preserve the Reds’ 5-4 victory at Great American Ball Park. Chapman got Russell Martin to pop out to Brandon Phillips at second base before blowing away Michael McHenry and Jordy Mercer with 100-plus mph fastballs to end the Pirates’ rally.
The Reds (55-42) now trail Pittsburgh (56-39) by two games as both teams try to keep first place St. Louis within reach. The Reds have a chance to sweep the Pirates in Sunday’s series finale as Homer Bailey goes up against All-Star Jeff Locke.
“That was a game that we needed and that sets the stage for (Sunday),” said Reds manager Dusty Baker. “They’ve taken a few games away from us this year. We’ve lost some tough games to them this year, especially in their ballpark.”
The Reds and Pirates are now 6-6 against each other this season. Pittsburgh won four of the first six games, including a three-game series sweep at PNC Park in April. Eight of the 12 games have been decided by one or two runs and only two of the games have been decided by more than three runs.
Neither team is pretty; they rely on pitching and defense more than their offenses.
Saturday’s game took four hours and 55 minutes to complete, thanks in part to a rain delay of 1:17 that began just before the bottom of the first inning began. The Reds jumped on Pittsburgh starter A.J. Burnett for four runs (three of them unearned) when they finally did get to bat.
Reds starter Mat Latos fought himself as much as the Pirates in his five innings of work. Pittsburgh got two runs back in the second inning, one on a Garrett Jones solo home run and one unearned run scored by Clint Barmes who reached base on a wild pitch while striking out swinging. Latos gave up another solo home run to Andrew McCutchen in the fourth inning before retiring the final four batters he faced.
He finished with 99 pitches thrown, only 59 of them for strikes, but he did leave with a 4-3 lead. He also threw two simulated innings, worth another 40 pitches, while trying to keep loose during the rain delay.
“I wasn’t too fond of it. It’s not something I’ve had to do but there’s a first time for everything,” said Latos of coming back to the mound after more than 90 minutes. “The whole bullpen picked me up today and the offense with the four early runs off a good pitcher who has been in the big leagues for long time. That’s a rarity for a guy like A.J. Burnett to give up runs like that. We took full advantage of that first inning. I almost gave it up but the bullpen definitely came through.”
Reds relievers have now posted a 1.00 ERA in their last 15 games.
This was the third time in four outings this season against the Pirates that Latos had been spotted with at least a 4-0 lead. He left the game with the lead the first two times only to see the Pirates come from behind for wins.
This time J.J. Hoover and Sam LeCure pitched shutout innings, while Logan Ondrusek got Jose Tabata to ground out with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning. Alfredo Simon had retired the first two batters routinely but ran into trouble after that, necessitating Ondrusek coming on.
Ondrusek has been sent down to Louisville twice this season, but since returning on June 29 he has seven straight scoreless appearances to his credit.
“I made the pitch when I needed to and got the ground ball,” said Ondrusek. “Everybody has got each other’s back down there. Everyone has to step up and do a job. We can’t rely on one person every time. Our job is to get it to Chapman to close it out.”
Chapman closed it out despite McCutchen beating out an infield hit to third and two errors, one on Chapman throwing to first to try and keep McCutchen close. Chapman shrugged off the negatives of the situation and left the two runners on base. His final pitch to Mercer was 102 mph.
“He just continued to make pitches. He was fired up. I think that’s why he likes that closer role,” said catcher Devin Mesoraco. “He can get pumped up and really go after guys. It’s really fun to watch.”