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Can the Reds Keep It Rolling?

Two and a half weeks ago, the Reds couldn’t have won a game like they did last night.  The Reds had no punch then.  Their offense couldn’t get a lead, and their bullpen was blowing it even if they did.  The joy of watching their starting rotation blossom into the layered, diverse, and increasingly dominant unit it is now was totally eclipsed by the sheer brokenness that was the Reds for much of May.  No figure better described the Reds state of affairs on May 23 than this: a 1 - 11 record in one-score games.

Since then, the Reds are a different team.  Well, except for the starting pitching – that’s still excellent.  But mostly everything else?  A complete reversal.

That all culminated last night.  The Reds got the breaks they wouldn’t have gotten previously.  The bats weren’t howling, but they made enough noise in key moments.  The bullpen (cough, cough, Alexis Díaz) made us sweat a bit at the end, but it held firm instead of letting the game get away.  And the starting pitching – last night courtesy of Nick Lodolo – was its typical, game-controlling self against a pretty good Cubs lineup.  All three phases were working in harmony, and that hasn’t been the case for the Reds until now.

The Reds even capitalized on some Cubs mistakes that ultimately led to the unlikely victory.  With two outs, Spencer Steer at bat and Elly De La Cruz on first base, Cubs starter Justin Steele made a pickoff move that caught Elly stealing dead-to-rights.  He should have been out by a mile, but a less-than-perfect throw was no match for Elly’s lightning speed.  Elly was safe at second, and after a drop-third strike followed by another less-than-perfect throw allowed Steer to reach first base, the stage was set for Tyler Stephenson to jump all over Steele’s 0 - 1 slider for a bases-clearing double.  2 - 0, advantage Reds, and it never should have happened.

The deciding third run the Reds scored was also about timely hitting – but it was really more about hustle.  Rookie Blake Dunn, who was hitless through his first four games and six at-bats, lined a would-be single up the middle – only a single wasn’t on Dunn’s mind.  He was booking it out of the box, and easily beat the throw to second from Cubs left fielder Ian Happ for a double and his first career hit.  Stuart Fairchild promptly punched a single up the middle and gave the Reds the 3 - 0 lead they’d never relinquish.

The Cubs would answer with a Dansby Swanson homer off Lodolo in the 6th, but otherwise, the Reds left-hander was stellar.  His breaking stuff is filthy, like X-rated stuff.  There should be a disclaimer before he starts that viewing might not be suitable for children.  The Cubs hitters, unfortunately for them, had to suffer.

Díaz, of course, entered the 9th with a save opportunity, but gave Cincinnati a collective anxiety-attack as he finished the job.  But he did finish the job.  He has a long, long, long (did I say long?) way to go before he looks anything like the All-Star closer he was last year, but he eventually locked down the Cubbies last night.  Two and a half weeks ago, you could bet your house that the lead would be history.

So now, the Reds have already completed at minimum a split of their four-game homestand against the Cubs, are currently riding a six-game winning-streak and have won eleven of their last fourteen games.  They’ve gone from a 20 - 30 record and 8.5 games back in the NL Central on May 23, to 31 - 33 on June 8 and sitting in a four-way tie for the final NL Wild Card spot with an opportunity today to kick the Cubbies out of that foursome.  Sometimes in baseball, fortunes have a way of changing quickly.

But what has changed?  Did anything actually change?  Is it simple enough to say, “The bats have finally returned to life,” and call it a day?

Well…yeah, probably.

You see, when the Reds were mired in their abysmal slump in May, they were playing like a bad team, but they weren’t actually a bad team. All the trappings of a bad team (no timely hitting, a leaky bullpen, uncompetitive at-bats) were all there, but it was an illusion.  A better Reds team still existed – for whatever reason, it decided to hibernate for almost a month.  It took a little time, but the pieces are steadily rounding into form.

Since May 23, a number of Reds hitters have caught fire.  Jonathan India is getting on-base nearly 50% of the time since then.  Steer has three homers, nine RBI, and eight runs scored.  Jeimer Candelario shook off his atrocious start and has a fantastic .531 slugging percentage during the Reds hot streak.  And, as always, the starters have been there giving the Reds a fighting chance in almost every outing.

T.J. Friedl can’t take all the credit for the Reds’ rise, but his return on May 29 from a thumb injury has given the Reds an extra spark.  He’s stabilized the Reds’ center field spot, and his unique ability to get on base via walks and occasional bunts for hits have galvanized this Reds offense.  His return has offset the notable dip in offense from De La Cruz over the last month and a half, though Elly’s bat has shown signs of life recently, including a mammoth three-run bomb on Thursday night.

There was so much promise for the Reds before the season started, and it looks like they’re finally living up to the hype.  The little things – the taking an extra base, the aggressiveness on the basepaths, the patience to take walks, the starters going deep into games – they’re all coalescing to create a formidable, adaptable, and resilient squad that can play with any team in baseball.  A sweep of the Dodgers and a 4 - 3 season-record against the NL-leading Phillies is credit enough to that.

As great and entertaining as this recent run has been, the Reds won’t always be so fortunate as to score two cheap, unlikely runs off of the Cubs ace.  There will be times where they still fall short.  But the tide seems to have shifted.  The lineup and bullpen aren’t perfect, but when they’re clicking, they can be as good as any in the league.  Noelvi Marté’s return from suspension will be a welcome addition too. And as long as the starters continue to rise to the occasion, there’s no telling what’s in store this summer.  I, for one, cannot wait.

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