Reds’ Holmberg shows well in short notice audition

CINCINNATI — David Holmberg didn’t have time to think about the St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup Monday night. That’s probably a good thing.

Holmberg had to relieve Reds starter Dylan Axelrod, who left after seven pitches because of a right oblique strain, and produced his best outing in the major leagues in a 5-0 loss to the Cardinals.

Holmberg pitched 5 2/3 shutout innings against a team that has now won nine of its last 10 games and 18 of 25 while building a 4½ game lead in the National League Central division. It’s a team that has owned the Reds this season, winning 10 of 13 games, and the past few seasons, winning 11 of the previous 12 series played.

September baseball for teams out of contention — the Reds have an elimination number of six in the NL Central and 11 for the NL wild card — is often times an audition for the next season. That’s very much the case for Holmberg, 23, who was acquired last offseason from Arizona in the trade that sent catcher Ryan Hanigan to Tampa Bay.

Monday was the first time at this level the left-hander has shown why the Reds traded for him.

Holmberg had two very forgettable starts in previous stints with the Reds this season. Those were one-game shots against the Cubs and the Braves in which he knew he was heading back to Louisville regardless of how well he did or didn’t perform. He lasted just 2 2/3 innings both times, giving up 11 runs on 12 hits. Of the 37 batters he faced in those two outings, 21 of them reached base, including four home runs allowed.

He was much more comfortable on the mound Monday. He gave up four hits and two walks after replacing Axelrod, who was making his fourth start in place of the injured Homer Bailey. Holmberg’s been working on his mechanics with pitching coach Jeff Pico the past week since getting his September call-up from Triple-A Louisville.

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"It’s just working on getting everything going towards home plate, not spending a lot of pitches and working down in the zone," said Holmberg. "I was just focusing on throwing good pitches and getting some innings."

He lowered his ERA from 15.63 to 8.25 with the outing.

According to Elias Sports Bureau, Axelrod is the first Reds starting pitcher to be credited with facing one batter or less in a regular season game since Don Newcombe was credited with facing no batters in the second game of a doubleheader against Pittsburgh on July 17, 1960. Johnny Cueto faced one batter before leaving the first game of the NL Division Series against San Francisco two years ago with an injury. That is the fewest number of batters faced by a starting pitcher in Major League Baseball postseason history.

Holmberg knew he was going to be in the long relief role Monday but no one anticipates coming into a game after seven pitches. He said he was able to get a couple of quick throws in before the bullpen door opened and he entered the game.

"I was happy for him because one of the reasons we wanted him to be with us in September was to have those types of opportunities," said manager Bryan Price. "Obviously not to come in the first inning after an injury, but to get a chance to pitch and get comfortable in the environment. Every start he’s made both in Arizona and for us in Cincinnati has been to come up to the big leagues for one start and then go back to the minor leagues. I think he needs to get comfortable in the environment. I thought he did a great job today."

The fifth spot in the starting rotation will come up three more times the rest of the month. Price said Holmberg and Daniel Corcino will be possibilities for that role. Holmberg gave his bosses every reason to take another look at him in those games.