Reds offense continues to press, come up empty

Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto (19) is tagged out during the fourth inning by the Tampa Bay Rays catcher Ryan Hanigan (24) at Great American Ball Park.

Frank Victores/Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI — Joey Votto took off from second base as soon as the baseball came off Brandon Phillips’ bat in the bottom of the fourth inning. It was a clean line drive single to center field by Phillips and Votto was running as hard as he could towards third base, where coach Steve Smith’s right arm was telling Votto to keep heading for home.

The message was well intentioned but misplaced. That’s what happens when you are in the kind of offensive rut the Reds are in.

The Reds lost to the Rays 1-0. It was their eighth loss in 11 games to start the season. They’ve played nine games in which the differential has been two runs or less. They’ve won just two of those games. They’ve scored more than three runs in just three games. They’ve only allowed more than three runs in a game four times so far but when you’re not scoring it doesn’t take much to put a little anxiety into equation.

Smith sending Votto in the fourth was all about that anxiety.

Votto had no chance at scoring on Phillips’ hit. The combination of how hard the ball was struck, how quickly Tampa Bay rookie Kevin Kiermaier charged the ball and the accuracy of his throw to catcher Ryan Hanigan meant Votto was out before he started his slide. Phillips was thrown out attempting to steal third moments later. Jay Bruce’s strike out swinging brought to an end one of those innings that right now seems to epitomize the team’s struggles: three batters, two hits and no runs.

"There’s no one more upset right now than Smitty," said manager Bryan Price. "When we’re struggling to score runs he’s trying to be aggressive. He’s an aggressive natured third base coach. I’ve known him for years and years and I couldn’t be happier to have him down there. He’s beating himself up over it. He wants to be held accountable to it, and that’s why he’s here on this coaching staff. He’s accountable for what happened and I think if he could do it again he’d certainly change his decision.

"That being said, we’re trying to score runs. We’re trying to create run-scoring opportunities and I think he felt in that situation because the ball was slightly angled to the center fielder that there was a chance he could draw an inaccurate throw and he didn’t. That kid made a great throw and got the out."

Price made a few lineup changes on Saturday, most notably moving Votto up to the No. 2 spot in the order and putting Phillips in at No. 3. It was an attempted kick-start for an offense that is failing to produce across the board in the opening two weeks of the season.

The Reds have allowed just 34 runs this season but have scored just 28 themselves. An outstanding pitching performance by Alfredo Simon, who allowed just five hits and one run on a James Loney home run in the second inning in eight innings, was wasted.

That’s been a theme so far this season.

The Reds have played five games at home this season; they’ve been held scoreless through eight innings in four of them, including the first two games of this series. Friday night it was David Price who handcuffed them. Saturday it was Alex Cobb, who allowed just four hits in his seven innings of work.

"Simon pitched so well, and our pitching and defense has done so well that for us to be 3-8, it’s awful," said shortstop Zack Cozart, who had a double in the third inning for the Reds’ first hit of the game. It was just his second hit of the season and his first at home.

"We’re still a confident group hitting. We think we can hit. At some point in the year your team is going to go into a funk and hopefully this is our funk and we’re going to get it over with," said Cozart. "You get frustrated when you don’t perform like you want to. As hitters we know we’re a lot better than we’ve shown."