CINCINNATI -- Facing the White Sox, Brewers and Twins over the final nine games, the Reds’ finish to 2020 is the most difficult in Major League Baseball among playoff contenders based on opponents' win percentage.
Cincinnati didn't seem too negatively affected as it dispatched Chicago with four home runs during a 7-1 victory in the series opener at Great American Ball Park on Friday. Winners of six in a row and seven of their past eight games, the Reds (26-26) have a .500 record for the first time since Aug. 3, when they were 5-5.
"Of course, when you get to the end of the season and there’s momentum and you feel the energy," said Reds first baseman Joey Votto, who went 3-for-4 with a homer and an RBI double, "we’re certainly not there yet. We’re aware, collectively, that we’re moving towards something. We’re going to do everything we can to stay focused, to take it day by day, to not get ahead of ourselves, to try to win the next game that’s in front of us. But of course, we’re excited. This is what we’re playing for."
The Cardinals (24-24) swept a doubleheader from the Pirates to move back into a tie with Cincinnati for second place in the National League Central race. This season, finishing second means a guaranteed postseason berth, and St. Louis holds the tiebreaker based on the head-to-head record this season (6-4).
But in a good sign for the final stretch, the hardest-hit long ball of the night for the Reds came from the guy who needed a hit the most.
Designated hitter Jesse Winker snapped an 0-for-23 skid when he pummeled a 1-1 pitch from rookie pitcher Jonathan Stiever for a three-run homer to right-center field. According to Statcast, the ball exited Winker's bat at 110.9 mph and traveled an estimated 447 feet.
"This is a player that, when he first came up, some people were talking about his power potential," Votto said. "We’re seeing him grow into it. We’re seeing him become a better, more well-rounded hitter. And tacking on the power part of it is very exciting, and I’m happy for him. I was watching him swing every day. I just thought at some point, it’s coming out, because he just keeps missing. And I see that going forward."
Winker, one of baseball's hottest hitters in August, missed five games last week because of lower back tightness, and he returned to the lineup on Tuesday. Coming into Friday, he was batting .098 (4-for-41) since Aug. 29, and it lowered his average from .341 to .264.
"You want to contribute every at-bat that you can, especially me -- I’m only DHing," Winker said. "My time to play is hitting, so that’s what I want to do. You’re going to make outs. Obviously, everybody getting hits, driving in runs, hitting homers, base hits, getting guys over, it’s been amazing. We said it today, we’ve been playing really clean baseball.
"It’s been so much fun, man. This is the most fun I’ve ever had. This is an incredible group of guys. It’s awesome."
With one out in the first inning, second batter Nick Castellanos crushed a solo homer to left field on a 2-2 pitch. Three more homers came in the third inning against Stiever. Tucker Barnhart led off by hitting an 0-2 pitch to right field. With two outs, Votto drove his 2-1 pitch over the fence in center field. After back-to-back walks, Winker hit his three-run homer. In the seventh inning, Votto just missed a second homer with an RBI double off the top of the left-field wall.
That made the job easier for Reds starting pitcher Tyler Mahle, who gave up one earned run on four hits and two walks over 5 2/3 innings while striking out eight. Tejay Antone took over for Mahle with two outs in the sixth and walked his first batter. But Antone struck out Luis Robert to escape the jam and worked 2 1/3 scoreless innings. Sal Romano pitched a perfect ninth.
A big league player since 2017, Winker is one of many Reds players experiencing a pennant race for the first time. The Reds have endured six losing seasons since last reaching the postseason in ‘13.
"It’s what you play for," Winker said. "The first year I was drafted in ’12, and ’13, that was the last year they were in the playoffs. I remember going to instructs watching Joey, Jay [Bruce] and Brandon [Phillips] and watching the playoffs, following the whole season. This is all I know, this organization, man. Being in this spot right now, chasing what we’re chasing and the goals we have in mind, it gives me goosebumps."