CINCINNATI -- The quality of the Reds' young starting pitching will ultimately make or break their 2018 season. If they make progress, the team should wind up doing likewise. That's what made rookie Tyler Mahle's start on Monday against the Cubs so encouraging.
In a 1-0 victory, the Reds' first of the season, Mahle worked six innings, allowing one hit and two walks with seven strikeouts, while throwing 86 pitches. The deciding run crossed against Cubs starter Tyler Chatwood in the fourth inning, when Eugenio Suarez came home on an Adam Duvall groundout.
"It was Mahle's day. He was really good," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "We thought we could score more than zero runs. Mahle's a nice-looking pitcher who has good stuff."
For the first time this season, the Reds weren't working from a deficit after the top of the first inning. Mahle walked the Cubs' first batter, Ian Happ, after having a 1-2 count, and hit Anthony Rizzo in the foot with a 1-2 pitch and one out. But Mahle struck out Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber swinging at 95-mph four-seam fastballs to escape the jam.
After two called strikeouts began the second inning, Mahle's lone hit allowed came from Javier Baez. Right fielder Jesse Winker took a poor route on the drive toward the warning track and fell down trying to make the catch. Baez had a triple, but was stranded when Chatwood struck out, also on a called third strike.
"I located my fastball really well," Mahle said. "The slider and changeup came later -- maybe the last couple innings. For the most part, I was able to take over the game, kind of, with my fastball."
Eventually, Mahle was able to get the Cubs to expand their strike zone. After the Baez triple, Mahle retired 12 of his last 13 batters. That included shortstop Cliff Pennington turning a nice double play against Addison Russell, following a one-out walk to Schwaber.
"That's what happens when you locate fastballs: your breaking stuff plays," catcher Tucker Barnhart said. "You throw enough breaking balls and changeups in the strike zone, and you're able to command the fastball like he does, it gets guys out of their comfort zone. It puts guys on the defensive and makes hitters expand their strike zone. He was able to do that today. He did that all spring. It wasn't a surprise to me he went out and did that today."
Mahle, 23, is the Reds' No. 4 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, and is still a rookie after making only four big league starts last season. He earned a rotation spot out of Spring Training, in part because of his strong performance and also in part due to injuries to Anthony DeSclafani and Brandon Finnegan. That leaves Homer Bailey the lone veteran in the rotation with Mahle, Sal Romano, Luis Castillo and Cody Reed.
Like last season, and in Spring Training, Mahle worked methodically and showed little emotion -- and a lot of maturity -- against a formidable Cubs lineup.
"All I can do out is go out and pitch," Mahle said. "That's what I did, got some swings-and-misses. But also guys were making great plays in the infield and outfield."
Mahle's opposite number, Chatwood, threw nearly as many balls (43) as strikes (49) and walked six. Still, he gave up just one earned run and four hits with four strikeouts and kept the Cubs in the game.
Reds manager Bryan Price pulled Mahle for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the sixth when the Reds had a chance to add on runs, but came up empty.
"He had done his job," Price said. "I like to anticipate, with his normal pitch efficiency, that we'll see him in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings with some regularity here. I'm very confident he can be that type of pitcher."
The Reds' bullpen protected the narrow lead, with Jared Hughes getting things started with a scoreless seventh. Lefty Wandy Peralta struck out his first two batters in the top of the eighth before a walk and a single had Price summoning closer Raisel Iglesias for a four-out save. Iglesias walked Kristopher Bryant on four pitches but escaped by striking out Rizzo.
In the ninth, Iglesias retired the side in order to lock down the save.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Suarez sets up run: It was a scoreless game when Suarez led off the Cincinnati fourth inning by driving a ball over the head of center fielder Happ. The ball went to the wall and Suarez motored to third base for a triple. On a soft groundball from Duvall, Suarez was able to score the game's lone run, as the only play third baseman Bryant had was to first base.
"We scored the run and we made it last somehow," Price said. "Holding anyone down to zero is tough enough, especially when there is no wiggle room. Our guys clutched up defensively and the pitching was sensational."
Iglesias shuts down Cubs When Bryant walked on four pitches against Iglesias, it opened the door for the Cubs to break the game open. Rizzo fouled off a 96-mph, 2-2 pitch and then looked at ball two. Iglesias came back with a 95-mph fastball that Rizzo chased up and away for strike three that ended the threat.
"That's just one of those situations where Anthony is one of the best hitters in the league and I think Iggy is one of the better closers in the league and you just kind of rear back and see what happens," Barnhart said. "We didn't want to give in. Obviously, you can't give in with the bases loaded and only up a run, but it was going to be a heater the whole way and if we got beat, it was going to be with a fastball."
"You can't be too frustrated," Rizzo said "You're up there battling. If you punch out, you punch out. You go up there with a plan. Their pitcher made good pitches."
"That was a phenomenal play. He said, 'Tell me about how that play looked, because I didn't see it.' I thought that was great, very funny after a big moment there." -- Price, on what Pennington told him after turning the nice double play in the fourth inning
When the series continues on Tuesday at 6:40 p.m. ET, it could be interesting to watch Billy Hamilton vs. Jonathan Lester, if he can get on base. Lester has historically had trouble holding base runners and Hamilton can create trouble anytime he gets to first base. On the mound, Cody Reed will be making his season debut with what could amount to a spot start before Finnegan returns.
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