Sidelines with John Clay

The Cincinnati Reds are the biggest early surprise in baseball

Cincinnati Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez hit a bases-loaded double to drive in three runs in front of Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli in the seventh inning Wednesday. The Reds won, 9-2.
Cincinnati Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez hit a bases-loaded double to drive in three runs in front of Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli in the seventh inning Wednesday. The Reds won, 9-2. Associated Press

It’s only April 13, but time to stop and take a screen shot.

There at the top of the Major League Baseball standings, with the best record in all of baseball, seven wins and just two losses, sit none other than the Cincinnati Reds.

That’s right, the Reds. The same team that lost 98 games two years ago, that dropped 94 last year. The same team that most so-called, including this so-called so-called, figured would be trafficking right about that same won-lost number again this year.

And they might, of course. It’s a long season. The big 162. Not until Thursday night’s opener of a four-game home series with the Milwaukee Brewers will Bryan Price’s club have hit double digits in games played. Still, you have to admit, this has been a very surprising and encouraging start for the team on the other side of the Ohio River.

The Reds took two out of three from the Phillies at Great American Ball Park to open the season. They then took two of three from the Cardinals in St. Louis, a rare accomplishment indeed. Next, they swept the Pirates in Pittsburgh, winning the trio by scores of 7-1, 6-2 and 9-2. That’s a combined total of 22-5.

Pitching has been the early-season difference. As of Thursday morning, the Reds are tied with Minnesota for the best ERA in the majors at 2.48. Cincinnati has allowed 22 earned runs in 80 innings pitched. Minnesota has allowed 19 earned runs in 69 innings pitched.

Even better, as I mentioned in my random notes column for the print edition, the Reds’ bullpen has done a complete 180 from last season. In 2016, only Colorado (5.13) had a higher bullpen ERA than did the Reds (5.09). This year, the Reds currently lead all of MLB in bullpen ERA at 1.23. The Yankees are second at 1.27. Minnesota is third at 1.29.

After relying on flamethrower Aroldis Chapman to close out games by hitting triple figures on the Jugs Gun, the Reds have taken a collective approach this season. Price is using his relievers for longer periods and in different spots than he did before.

In Monday night’s win at Pittsburgh, the Reds’ pen retired 21 consecutive batters, starting with Michael Lorenzen relieving struggling starter Brandon Finnegan with the bases loaded and no one out in the third inning. Lorenzen got Josh Bell to fly out to center. He coaxed Adam Frazier into a comebacker to the mound that Lorenzen used to force Gregory Polanco at home. Then Lorenzen fanned pitcher Wade LeBlac to end the inning.

In total, Lorenzen pitched three innings of perfect baseball, striking out three. Cody Reed, a disappointment as a rookie starter last season, followed with three more perfect innings. Reed struck out four. Wandy Peralta, a 25-year-old rookie, finished it out with a perfect ninth. He struck out two of the three batters he faced.

In Tuesday night’s win over the Pirates, Price didn’t wait for the ninth inning to use closer Raisel Iglesias. When two Pirates reached Reds reliever Blake Wood with one out, Price called on Iglesias, who got Jody Mercer to bounce into a fielder’s choice and John Jaso to fly out to right. Iglesias returned in the ninth to retire the side and pick up his third save.

Wednesday night, rookie Amir Garrett turned in his second impressive start. Last Friday, the former guard for the St. John’s basketball team allowed just two hits over six innings in Cincinnati’s 2-0 win over the Cardinals. On Wednesday, Garrett gave up five hits and two runs over 6.2 innings. He struck out five without walking a batter. Through two starts, Garrett has a 2-0 record, a 1.42 ERA and a 0.71 WHIP.

Can this last? Probably not. Yet the Reds look to be in better shape than they were a year ago when they were relying castoffs to fill out a shaky pen. Lorenzen, Reed and Garrett are all terrific young arms learning how to pitch. He lacks Chapman’s velocity — as does most everyone else in baseball — but Iglesias has plenty of movement on his pitches and delivery angles to give batters fits.

On the flip side, outside of Garrett, the Reds’ starters have struggled. Scott Feldman got off to a rough start on opening day before settling down in a 4-3 loss to the Phillies. He came back with six shutout innings Sunday in the Reds’ 8-0 win at St. Louis. The 40-year-old Bronson Arroyo was knocked around last Saturday in that 10-4 loss to the Cards.

After a rough debut against the Phillies, Rookie Davis was starting to find his groove against Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, when he was hit by a pitch while trying to bunt. He’s now on the 10-day disabled list with a bruised right forearm.

Brandon Finnegan, like Reed acquired in the 2015 Johnny Cueto deal with Kansas City, was brilliant in his first start, giving up just one hit over seven innings against Philadelphia. Finnegan couldn’t find the strike zone at Pittsburgh on Monday, giving up four hits and walking five in two innings plus four batters.

Arroyo returns to the mound Thursday against Milwaukee. A fan favorite in his first stint with the Reds, the veteran should get a warm welcome from the home folks at GABP. The Reds wanted Arroyo’s experience and expertise to help the young pitchers. It remains to be seen, however, how long he’ll be able to stick.

At the plate, Joey Votto is off to a slow start, hitting just .171 so far, but it hasn’t mattered. His teammates have more than picked up the slack.

The Reds traded Brandon Phillips to Atlanta over the winner to open up second base for Jose Peraza, acquired from the Dodgers in the three-team Todd Frazier deal before last season. Peraza went six-for-15 in the Pittsburgh series with two RBI. He has stolen four bases so far this season.

Eugenio Suarez, acquired in the 2014 deal with the Tigers for pitcher Alfredo Simon, was three for four with three RBI against the Pirates on Wednesday. He’s hitting .429 with two homers and eight RBI.

Adam Duvall appears to determined to show that last season wasn’t a fluke. A 2015 All-Star after being acquired from San Francisco in the Mike Leake deal, Duvall is hitting .353 with three homers and seven RBI.

Then there’s Scooter Gennett. Acquired on waivers from the Milwaukee Brewers just before the start of the season, Gennett has hit three homers and has driven in eight. He was three for four on Tuesday night, with a three-run homer.

Gennett, 26, hit 14 homers in 498 at-bats with the Brewers last season. He owns a career .279 batting average and can play a variety of positions, including second, third and shortstop. He has been an early-season steal.

Meanwhile, the Reds are an early-season surprise. So far, the biggest surprise in baseball.

Reds results and upcoming schedule

Date

Opp

Cin

Opp

Dec

Rec

Starter

IP

ER

Decision

Save

4/3

Phi

3

4

L

0-1

Feldman

4.2

3

Feldman 0-1

4/5

Phi

2

0

W

1-1

Finnegan

7.0

0

Finnegan 1-0

Iglesias-1

4/6

Phi

7

4

W

2-1

Davis

3.0

4

Reed 1-0

Storen-1

4/7

@StL

2

0

W

3-1

Garrett

6.0

0

Garrett 1-0

Iglesias-2

4/8

@StL

4

10

L

3-2

Arroyo

4.0

6

Arroyo 0-1

4/9

@StL

8

0

W

4-2

Feldman

6.0

0

Feldman 1-1

4/10

@Pit

7

1

W

5-2

Finnegan

2.0

1

Lorenzen 1-0

4/11

@Pit

6

2

W

6-2

Davis

4.0

1

Storen 1-0

Iglesias-3

4/12

@Pit

9

2

W

7-2

Garrett

6.2

2

Garrett 2-0

4/13

Mil

4/14

Mil

4/15

Mil

4/16

Mil

4/18

Balt

4/19

Balt

4/20

Balt

4/21

Chi

4/22

Chi

4/23

Chi

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