The Cincinnati Reds were to start the second half, or the post All-Star break, of the season on Friday night in Colorado. David Bell’s team sat 41-46, but just 4.5 games out of first place in the tightly packed National League Central.
Here are five things the Reds need to do in the second half to become real factor in the playoff race:
1. Start hitting
That was Reds rookie center fielder Nick Senzel’s succinct answer when he was asked the question of what Cincinnati needed to do the rest of the season. And with good reason. The Reds’ team batting average is just .235, which ranks 14th out of the 15 NL teams. They are 28th in the majors in runs scored, 24th in OPS and 24th in on-base percentage.
There is reason for hope. Right fielder Yasiel Puig was hitting .207 on June 9. After 10 hits in his 20 July at-bats, he’s up to .257 with 20 homers and 51 RBI. Joey Votto was hitting .208 on May 19. After hitting .299 in June and .273 so far in July, the Reds’ first baseman is hitting .268. His career batting average is .309. After hitting .321 in May, Eugenio Suarez slumped to .185 in June. He should pick it back up in the second half.
2. Keep up the pitching
The offseason acquisitions of starting pitchers Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark, plus pitching coach Derrick Johnson, have paid off. The Reds are second in the NL in ERA at 3.77, behind only the Dodgers at 3.37. Just six teams in MLB have an ERA of under 4.00. Luis Castillo has been the team’s ace with an 8-3 record and a 2.29 ERA.
Gray, acquired from the Yankees, gives credit to Johnson, who also coached him at Vanderbilt. “It feels like he’s taught me how to pitch twice now,” Gray told the Cincinnati Enquirer after being named to the NL All-Star team. “He’s hands-down the best pitching coach there is.”
3. Hold the bullpen together
Bell’s critics have knocked his habit of pulling starting pitchers early, but the first-year manager has merely followed the MLB trend of not allowing most starters to go through the opposing batting order a third time. Judging by the team’s ERA, that strategy is working.
It has put some pressure on the bullpen, but not as much as you might think. The Reds rank ninth in fewest bullpen innings (297.2) and are 10th in bullpen ERA at 4.05. Opponents are hitting just .235 against the Reds’ pen, which ranks sixth-best in the majors. All that despite the fact closer Raisel Iglesias has struggled at times. He’s 2-7 with a 4.06 ERA.
4. Get healthier
Starting pitcher Alex Wood was one of the major attractions of the offseason trade with the Dodgers that also brought Puig and Kyle Farmer to Cincinnati. But injuries have kept Wood from throwing an inning to this point. If he could return, Bell might sub Tyler Mahle (4.74 ERA) out of the rotation.
After hitting 27 homers with 97 RBI in 2017 and 23 homers with 92 RBI in 2018, Scooter Gennett has played in just six games this year with two hits in 20 at-bats. After finally returning from the strained groin he suffered during spring training, Gennett tweaked the injury again. The hope is the rest over the All-Star break will have the second baseman ready to go.
Same for Senzel, who sprained an ankle banging into the wall while trying to make a catch last Sunday against Cleveland. Senzel earlier sprained an ankle in spring training, delaying his major league debut. The former No. 2 overall pick has hit .263 over 55 games. He’s a future star who should get nothing but better.
And don’t forget Amir Garrett, the left-handed reliever who has been sensational this year (1.70 ERA), but is currently on the injured list with a lat strain.
5. Win the head-to-head NL Central matchups
With just three games separating the five teams in the loss column, the Central’s intra-division games take on even more importance. Entering Friday’s games, here were the standings:
- Chicago 47-43
- Milwaukee 47-44
- St. Louis 44-44
- Pittsburgh 44-45
- Cincinnati 41-46
The Reds are 6-3 against the Cubs. They’ve taken two of three in each of their three series with Joe Maddon’s club. They are 6-7 against Milwaukee but won their last three games against the Brewers, including back-to-back shutouts, last week.
The Reds are 3-4 against the Cardinals and have yet to play St. Louis in Great American Ball Park. (Their two “home” games against the Cards were played in Mexico.) They are 3-7 against Pittsburgh, but have won two of the last three against the Pirates.
After the three-game set with the Rockies, the Reds dive back into a heavy rotation of division play — three games in Chicago (July 15-17), four at home with St. Louis (July 18-21) and three at Milwaukee (July 22-24).