Every series starts to feel like a must-win at this point in the season. But for the Cincinnati Reds, it felt like an incredible opportunity to reach the playoffs with such a young roster was slipping by. The Milwaukee Brewers had expanded their division lead just as the Chicago Cubs surged into the Wild Card spot. After an inconsistent start to August, the Reds came through with a pivotal sweep over Shohei Ohtani and the Los Angeles Angels. Here are eight Reds notes from the series.
8 Notes From the Reds Thrilling Sweep Over the Angels
The first game was the chance for the Reds to sneak out a win. With Graham Ashcraft on the mound for Game 1, the Reds didn’t have to worry yet about facing Ohtani on the mound or figure out who would start the second leg of the doubleheader for themselves.
Ashcraft managed to go seven innings, allowing three runs on five hits and two walks. The unsightly three home runs would have been tough to swallow, but given that they were all solo home runs, the damage was limited. The most encouraging aspect of this start was Ashcraft’s career-high ten strikeouts.
Ashcraft did this while only getting thirteen total swing-and-misses from the Angels’ hitters. One of the strange aspects of Ashcraft’s development is his inability to rack up strikeouts. He has good pitch movement by Stuff+, a pitch quality measurement. He has a cutter with a 116 Stuff+ and a slider that has a whopping 165 Stuff+. Yet Ashcraft still rates poorly in strikeout rate and whiff rate.
Since his July 30 start against the San Diego Padres, Ashcraft has a 2.35 ERA over 65 innings. His strikeout rate hasn’t jumped since then, but he has been exceptional at limiting hard contact and inducing ground balls in that span. The Reds offense can’t afford to not jump on these opportunities. And in this series, they didn’t.
Scrappy Offense in Game 1
The Reds’ rookie sensation Matt McLain continued his fantastic year as he launched a solo home run in the first inning of Game 1. Elly De La Cruz followed with a single and took off for his 20th stolen base of the year. It was a common theme throughout the series for the Reds to take advantage of the Angels’ in this manner. The team’s athleticism is a major talking point.
In the fifth inning, Will Benson walked and TJ Friedl doubled to get into scoring position. De La Cruz squibbed a grounder to first base. The Angels’ rookie Nolan Schanuel booted it. De La Cruz’s speed always forces the defense to play perfectly, and it didn’t this time. But on the back end of the play, on an infield groundball, both Benson and Friedl scored on the error. They were necessary runs for the Reds, who would only go on to win 4-3 after Spencer Steer‘s double scored De La Cruz.
Abbott vs Ohtani
The second game of the series started the doubleheader. Andrew Abbott was set to duel against Shohei Ohtani. It didn’t go to plan for either. Ohtani left early due to injury. It gave the Reds’ offense a better chance to create some momentum. On the other side, Abbott continued his recent slide.
Abbott worked four innings, giving up three runs on five hits and four walks. He struck out five and allowed a home run. He has now failed to go six innings since July 25 against the Brewers.
There were several concerning factors to Abbott’s start. His four walks come after not walking a single batter over the last two starts. His velocity was down half a tick on all his pitches.
He didn’t help himself early on. He gave up a two-run home run to Ohtani in the first inning. Sometimes, you can tip your cap to great players like that, but it was especially painful after walking the leadoff hitter. He threw 44% of his pitches for balls this game. His season rate was 36%.
A team looking to convince the world it is playoff caliber should be able to back up their starters even on nights like this. Four innings and four runs isn’t ideal, but the Reds’ lineup proved its mettle.
Elly De La Cruz Electric As Always
The Reds managed to win Game 2 with a 9-4 score, largely due to Elly De La Cruz’s heroics. The budding star hit a three-run home run in the fifth inning as the Reds were already at two outs.
In the top of the 7th, holding on to a 4-3 lead, De La Cruz struck once again. Benson singled, Friedl bunt for a hit, and McLain worked a walk. De La Cruz ripped a hanging cutter down the right field line for a triple with an exit velocity of 112.6 MPH. The bases-clearing triple gave De La Cruz six RBIs, the most by a Reds player this season.
Moments like this inspire belief in the Reds’ young squad and De La Cruz as a future star. For this current playoff chase, though? The consistency is hard to come by. Games like this will carry the Reds to some crucial wins, but De La Cruz has still struggled to make adjustments to the big leagues. Since the beginning of July, he has an 80 wRC+ and his strikeout rate has been getting worse. His season strikeout rate is 34.2%, but in the month of August, he has struck out 37.6% of the time. He is still one of the few players in the game capable of what he has done. Once he gains more experience and improves his plate discipline, it is exciting to think of what he could become.
TJ Friedl Appreciation Post
De La Cruz isn’t the only player ripping off highlight-reel plays on a regular basis. TJ Friedl has been a foundational piece of the lineup this season. He’s another speedster for the Reds, and Friedl likes to show it off. He provides great defense, a threat on the basepaths, and the unique part of his game, lots of bunt hints.
His bunt single in the 7th inning was his 14th of the season, which is tops in the majors. Unconventional plays add to the thrilling dynamic of the Reds’ roster, but he provides value in every aspect of his game. His above-average defense makes him a valuable player, even as he is about league-average offensively.
He’s stolen 24 bases and has provided four home runs in August, adding to his production even though his on-base percentage has slipped recently. Friedl constantly puts pressure on opponents. He rarely strikes out and puts the ball in play with regularity. He is always a threat for an infield single or a bunt.
The Reds 7-3 victory in Game 3 was the most decisive in the series. The Reds managed twelve hits, largely due to production from their 6-9 hitters. Friedl had another incredible game, going 3-for-4, including a triple and yet another stolen base.
After Friedl’s triple, catcher Tyler Stephenson ripped a curveball into the stands for a two-run home run to break open the game. TJ Hopkins and Will Benson both single, setting up Matt McLain for an RBI single.
Hopkins and Benson both singled again in the top of the 8th. Noelvi Marte chopped a weak groundball to third base, but it allowed Hopkins to score for Marte’s first career RBI. McLain once again followed with a two-run homer.
It was this type of contribution from their entire lineup that made the Reds look so dangerous. Stolen bases were party favors for everyone, as De La Cruz (21st steal on the season), Benson (14th), McLain (13th), and Freidl (24th) all got running. The team speed is electric. The ability to push an extra runner into scoring position, or do it yourself with a stolen base, provides immense value to a team like the Reds that only ranks 15th in team home runs.
Don’t Overlook Spencer Steer
Perhaps the most overshadowed rookie for the Reds, Spencer Steer has been a keystone all season long. He rates as a poor defender, but he is willing to play all over the field as the team folds in rookies all over the diamond. His 117 wRC+ is third on the team, behind only Benson and McLain.
His plate approach is an unheralded skill that has turned him into a fantastic hitter. He does not chase outside the zone and he works a lot of walks. An interesting stat nugget- he is second on the team in pitches per plate appearance. The player higher than him? Jonathan India, who has been injured for a prolonged period of time now. In his absence, Steer has been working counts and getting on base.
One perfect example was in the series finale in the top of the second inning against pitcher Reid Detmers. Steer started off 0-2 in the count and came back to earn a walk.
He went 5-for-14 in this series against the Angels, including three walks and four RBIs. He had a slump in July, but in August he has a 127 wRC+.
Is This a Playoff Bullpen?
The Reds’ offense made sure to put up some serious offense in the final two games of the series, but for the majority of the series, it felt like the games were always on a knife’s edge. The bullpen made sure there was nothing to worry about.
The bullpen allowed a single run over 11 2/3 innings in this series. Sam Moll, their lone trade acquisition, and Ian Gibaut both appeared in two games. Fernando Cruz even pitched in both games of the doubleheader. And Alexis Diaz earned the save in Game 1 and pitched a scoreless 9th inning in Game 3 to finish off the series.
It goes beyond one impressive three-game series, though. Over the past fourteen days, the Reds have the best bullpen in baseball with a 1.26 ERA. The squad’s collective FIP (fielding-independent pitching) is 3.41 in that span, however. So, some regression may be due, but the bullpen has done it’s job. If the offense finds its groove once again, it could provide the spark the team needs down the stretch to lock up a playoff spot.
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