Reds’ Hoover passes first test of season

J.J. Hoover was 1-10 in 2014 for the Reds.

David Kohl/USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI — Last season was one to forget for J.J. Hoover.

He already has.

It was 1:46 a.m. Thursday when Zack Cozart safely slid into home with the run that gave the Reds a 5-4 win in 11 innings over Pittsburgh at damp Great American Ball Park. The start of the game had been delayed by two hours, 34 minutes because of rain and storms. The ending came 4:01 after the 9:45 p.m. start because the Reds and Pirates don’t know how to play anything but close games against one another. Cozart scored from second base on a two-out single to right field by Joey Votto, beating Gregory Polanco’s throw to catcher Francisco Cervelli.

That’s 2-for-2 for the Reds to start this season. Monday’s season opener was decided with Todd Frazier’s bat in the eighth inning. Wednesday’s game that crept into Thursday was a battle of attrition. Hoover pitched two scoreless innings, including getting the top of the Pittsburgh batting order — Josh Harrison, Polanco and Reds nemesis Andrew McCutchen — on three routine groundouts in the 11th inning.

"He had that fastball going," said Cozart. "They were swinging through it. It was like they couldn’t see it. He’s mixing his other pitches a lot more, too, so they don’t just key on his heaters. He pitched really well."

The announcement of Hoover entering the game couldn’t have been much comfort from what was left of the 30,859 who had bought tickets to the game. The memories of last season are still fresh for fans, memories that include Hoover surrendering 13 home runs in 62 2/3 innings and losing 10 straight decisions after picking up the Reds’ first win of the season in game No. 2.

Sean Rodriguez got an infield single to lead off the 10th inning on a comebacker to the mound that Hoover wasn’t able to corral. Hoover then retired the next six batters in a row as he gave the Reds offense a chance to win the game.

"I just executed pitches," said Hoover. "As long as I execute pitches I feel good things will happen. I was able to do that tonight."

There wasn’t much emotion tied to Hoover’s comments. Maybe it was the late hour of the night. Maybe it was the fact Hoover realizes this was just one game in a long season so don’t bother getting too carried away with things. They certainly can change quickly.

Either way, his performance brought a smile to manager Bryan Price.

"He came off a rough year and people don’t tend to want to let him forget it," said Price. "For us to be successful we have to have a seven-man bullpen that’s performing. That’s a great way for Hoov to start the year. We’re very familiar with his successes in 2012 and 2013 and should anticipate similar results here in 2015."

Hoover appeared in 97 games for the Reds in 2012 and 2013. He gave up 64 hits and 28 earned runs in averaging just a shade under one inning per outing. He was someone then-manager Dusty Baker had faith bringing into games. Hoover went 23 consecutive appearances covering 26 1/3 innings in 2013 without giving up a run. That’s a franchise record for a right-handed pitcher and the third-longest in club history.

That’s not how 2014 went for Hoover. He was twice sent back down to the minors. Twice he returned, including as a September call-up. In his final eight appearances after coming back from Triple-A Louisville, Hoover produced a 2.25 ERA. While he did allow three home runs in that time, his last three appearances were scoreless outings.

"The easiest guy to get down on is the relief pitcher because typically the game is won or lost based on the performance of the bullpen," said Price. "When you have a season like J.J. did you have to look at 10 losses, a lot of those situations were where he came in with zero wiggle room. He could not give up a run without losing a game, and there were times where he gave up that run.

"That being said, he’s no lesser of a pitcher now than he was in 2012 or 2013. Relief pitchers are going to have years where they struggle. That’s just the nature of the beast. There are only so many Mariano Riveras out there that are great every year. I believe in him because he works hard, he loves being with the Reds, he loves pitching and he’s always said ‘yes’ whenever I’ve handed him the ball or Dusty handed him the ball and I appreciate that."  

Hoover said he could’ve kept going for a third inning, or longer, if he had been needed and had Price asked him. Hoover heard all of the doubts from the stands last season. He saw them on social media. He also knows none of those doubts come from his former pitching coach who is now his manager.

Aside from closer Aroldis Chapman, Price has said roles in the bullpen are still to be determined. They’ll be determined by who pitches the best in the situations they’re called up. Hoover put a good first foot forward Thursday morning.

"It gives me a world of confidence," said Hoover about Price’s belief in him. "I have confidence in myself. Last year obviously wasn’t a (good) year and how I would draw up a year for me, and this is a new year. Last year’s the past. I don’t care about it. I’m moving on."