Ashcraft fulfills Strickland's prophecy in dominant outing

Rookie right-hander strikes out eight on 104 pitches over eight innings -- all career highs

June 25th, 2022

SAN FRANCISCO -- Just to set the record straight, Hunter Strickland called the outcome of Friday night's 4-2 win over the Giants the night before. Here's how Graham Ashcraft remembers the exchange.

"Last night we were hanging out, and he goes, 'You're going to go eight, and I'm going to come in and I'm going to shut it out,'" Ashcraft said. "That's what happened tonight, so it's pretty cool."

Said Strickland: "Every time he takes the ball, we've got confidence in him."

Ashcraft set a flurry of personal bests as he helped the Reds snap their seven-game losing streak in Friday night's series opener at Oracle Park, holding the Giants to a pair of runs while fanning eight batters on 104 pitches over eight innings -- all career highs.

His performance in San Francisco was reminiscent of the first time Ashcraft faced the Giants on May 27. The 24-year-old rookie scattered four hits over 6 1/3 scoreless innings in Cincinnati, earning his first Major League win in his second career start.

But in between those outings against the Giants, it's been a little more complicated.

In his first four career starts, Ashcraft allowed three runs in 23 2/3 innings for a 1.14 ERA, compiling three straight wins in the process. His two most recent starts didn't go nearly as well -- Ashcraft pitched to an unsightly 9.31 ERA, giving up 10 runs in 9 2/3 innings.

Manager David Bell isn't too bothered by the stark difference in results -- he said it's all part of Ashcraft's development into a big league arm.

"What we saw tonight is what we can expect from Graham a lot, where he just really attacks and he trusts his stuff," Bell said. "We talk about his fastball, but it’s really a few different fastballs within one pitch. A good sinker and a good cutter. … I think it can change from one start to the next, but that’s pretty much what he’s going to try to do to make him successful."

The cutter is Ashcraft's go-to pitch -- he throws it about 45 percent of the time. On Friday, he attacked with the cutter even more than usual, throwing it for 69 of his 104 pitches.

"I was able to locate it, and I was beating them with it and mixing in sliders," Ashcraft said. "I was throwing them off and keeping them on their toes. It was a good night all around. I had guys making great plays behind me. We got runs, and we needed them, so that was big."

What's more is that Ashcraft can bring the heat with his fastball -- his velocity topped out at 100.4 mph and averaged nearly 96 mph -- but he can also induce groundouts while limiting his opponents' exit velocity. Giants batters grounded out 12 times on Friday, averaging 85.5 mph off the bat, which the Reds' defense was able to handle with relative ease.

One of Ashcraft's biggest tests came in the eighth inning, when he allowed back-to-back base hits to open the frame. His catcher, Aramis Garcia, visited him on the mound to help him clear his head. Ashcraft buckled down and got the next batter, Tommy La Stella, to ground into a double play. He didn't quite get out of the inning cleanly -- Mike Yastrzemski knocked in a run on a two-out base hit -- but Ashcraft showed a maturity beyond his years that impressed his teammates.

"I didn't have that," Strickland said of Ashcraft's poise on the mound. "I, unfortunately, had to learn the hard way. I made a lot of mistakes, but he's been dominant thus far and we expect it to continue."

Ashcraft at his best is a breath of fresh air for Cincinnati, as the club's rotation has struggled in 2022. Through Friday's action, Reds starters ranked 29th in the Majors with a 5.42 ERA. Their .256 opponent batting average is the fourth-worst in the National League.

As Bell said, it's impossible to expect the same dominance from Ashcraft every game. But the Reds can certainly begin to rely on his steady presence on the mound.

"Confidence is everything," Garcia said. "You can feel it when you're catching him, you can feel it when you're watching him in the dugout. Whenever you can take the mound or step in the box with confidence, it's a difference-maker."