CINCINNATI – Marco Estrada was on top of his game Sunday. The Milwaukee right-hander shutout the Reds on one hit over seven innings as the Brewers beat the Reds 3-1 to take the rubber game of the three-game set. He struck out nine, including six in a row at one point in the midst of retiring 15 batters in a row.
Estrada has pitched well since coming off the disabled list, now allowing just five earned runs in 24 innings over four games, but in no way is he considered the Brewers’ best pitcher. Yet that is what the Reds made him look like as they managed just three base runners against him all day. It wasn’t until Estrada left the game after throwing 100 pitches and turning things over to the bullpen that the Reds started to make noise offensively.
This is not a new story for the Reds. The raw numbers say they are fourth in the National League in runs scored. They are third in the NL when it comes to getting on base and their slugging percentage is above the league average of .390. Yet when it comes to the eyeball test, they still haven’t hit their stride – pun fully intended.
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“We’ve been winning all year on pitching and defense and timely hits,” said shortstop Zack Cozart. “We’ve got to be more consistent as hitters. Our pitching keeps us in every game, basically.”
The pitching did exactly that on Sunday. Greg Reynolds made his second start of the season, in place of an injured Tony Cingrani, and allowed just a two-run home run to Caleb Gindl in the second inning over his six innings of work. The Brewers got their third and final run in the seventh inning against relievers Manny Parra and Sam LeCure. Still, three runs shouldn’t be enough to keep a team out of the game. It was Sunday.
Of the 21 outs Estrada recorded, the Reds had just one groundball. Besides the nine strikeouts they also had 10 fly balls that were either popped up on the infield or hit relatively softly to the outfield. Shin-Soo Choo led off the game with a sharp single to right field but after that only walks to Joey Votto one batter later and to Choo with two outs in the sixth inning blemished Estrada’s line.
Jay Bruce was 6-of-14 with four home runs against Estrada previously but he struck out his first two times up and then flew out to rightfielder Gindl in the seventh.
“He’s the type of guy that if he makes his pitches he’s going to have success. If he doesn’t, when the ball starts getting up in the zone with him it’s obviously an easier at-bat,” said Bruce. “The first at-bat I chased a few pitches. The second at-bat, I just couldn’t finish the at-bat. It’s been my issue all month, not finishing at-bats, getting pitches to hit and fouling them off. Not taking advantages of the opportunities. But he pitched a really good game.”
Devin Mesoraco and Ryan Ludwick singled off of reliever Brandon Kintzler to lead off the eighth inning but Cozart hit into a force play, followed by Chris Heisey and Choo striking out to leave runners on the corners. The Reds’ lone run of the game came on a solo home run by Votto in the ninth inning.
“You can’t settle for that,” said Cozart. “If you look up and down our lineup, we’re good hitters. We have a lot of talent, a lot of good players. I think you can look at it in a positive as in we haven’t clicked yet.”
Ludwick has returned to the team after missing the first four months with a torn labrum but he is not yet at full strength.
“You can’t put him in every day yet. He just got back. Or else you’ll hurt him again and then he won’t be with you at all down the stretch,” said manager Dusty Baker. “I’ve got a plan and I’ve talked to him about it, to get him game-ready on a daily basis… The one thing you can’t rush, you can’t rush every day. It is what it is and you need the necessary time.”
Ludwick knows he’s not ready to play every day yet but he’s starting to find a groove. After going hitless in his first 11 at-bats he’s got nine hits in 21 at-bats. He hit his first home run of the season Saturday night. With three straight night games coming up at St. Louis starting Monday, Ludwick is expected to be in the lineup each game.
“I’m finding ways to play at that big league level for missing as much time as I did,” said Ludwick. “You miss four months of the season, you’re joining the best baseball players in the world in mid-season form, the worst thing you can do is put too much pressure on yourself and that’s what I did the first three games. I started off oh-for-11 and I felt like the freakin’ world was collapsing on me.
“I just got back to breathing, realizing that this is going to be a process, taking one bat at a time and just trying to get better each day to the point where I can help this ball club at max effort level the last two weeks and postseason.”
The Reds have seven games left with St. Louis and six with Pittsburgh over the final five weeks of the season. No matter who it comes from, be it Ludwick or others, now is the time for the offense to change its story.