PITTSBURGH -- The Reds have had one of the best offenses in the Majors this season, but have struggled to produce consistently as of late. Entering Thursday, Cincinnati was 25th in the Majors with 54 runs scored in the month of September.
That offensive slip coincided with Cincinnati losing four in a row and 12 of 16 and the Reds losing their grip on the second National League Wild Card spot, though they remain only a game out.
On Wednesday night, after the Reds lost their fourth straight game, shortstop Kyle Farmer said it would only take one big hit for the team to break out of its mid-September funk. In Thursday afternoon’s series finale against the Pirates, the Reds didn’t get many hits, and it wasn’t a hit that proved to be the difference maker, but they finally stopped the slide with a 1-0 victory at PNC Park.
Catcher Tyler Stephenson delivered the biggest hit, a leadoff double in the seventh inning on a long fly ball that glanced off the top of the Clemente Wall in right field and went for a double. After that, the Reds played small ball, as Shogo Akiyama bunted him to third and pinch-hitter Asdrúbal Cabrera hit a sacrifice fly to bring him home.
The decision to go for one run was certainly against manager David Bell’s tendencies. Akiyama’s sacrifice bunt was just the third this season by a Cincinnati position player.
“It has to be the right hitter at the plate and the right situation,” Bell said. “It’s definitely when one run is crucial. I felt like in today’s game, one run could make a difference.”
The sacrifice bunt isn’t a usual part of Akiyama’s arsenal, either. It was his first in the Majors and first at any level since 2015 with the Saitama Seibu Lions in Japan. But the rust didn’t show on Thursday.
“It was a perfect bunt,” Bell said. “I definitely trusted Shogo to get it done. … He has not done it a lot in his career. But still, I trust his bat-to-ball skills, his professionalism and his desire to get it done.”
After that, he trusted Cabrera, who is 0-for-18 since joining the Reds, to come through in an important spot.
“It means a lot,” Cabrera said. “That’s what I’m here to do, to help the team win.”
The small approach proved necessary, as the Reds had just five total hits, four of which were singles, and never had more than one hit in any inning in the finale.
Making it stand up
Tyler Mahle pitched six scoreless innings, and the bullpen backed him up to keep the Pirates off the board, letting the lone run from the scuffling Cincinnati offense stand.
“They were the combined player of the game,” Bell said. “Tyler Mahle continues to have a fantastic season.”
Mahle dealt with traffic, and had runners in scoring position in each of the first three innings, but emerged unscathed despite getting just four strikeouts through six.
“I’m always just trying to make good pitches,” Mahle said. “Sometimes I miss the bat, sometimes I get weak contact.”
Lucas Sims, Michael Lorenzen and Mychal Givens combined to shut the Pirates down after Mahle exited, a stretch made all the more crucial by Bell’s decision to play for one run in the seventh.
“It was really important,” Givens said. “We needed this one to continue to play for a playoff spot. After a good outing by Tyler Mahle … we had to back him up, pass the baton and finish the game strong.”
On Friday, the Reds will return to Cincinnati for their final homestand of 2021, and will likely want to forget about their 11-day, 3-6 swing through the division.
Bell said that keeping his team together through the tough stretch would be the key to whether or not the Reds emerged from the slump, and Cabrera, who was claimed off waivers from Arizona on Aug. 27, sees that togetherness, even as a newcomer.
“This team, they always work together, like a family,” Cabrera said. “That’s really important for a team that wants to be in the postseason. I know we had a tough week, but I still believe in this team.”