CINCINNATI -- The Reds have been neck-and-neck with the Padres this weekend for the second National League Wild Card spot. While their chances to catch the first-place Brewers in the NL Central race have dimmed, they await a chance for one last crack at the leaders in Milwaukee this week.
First, however, Cincinnati needed to take care of business at home. A 3-1 victory over the Marlins on Sunday completed the four-game series sweep and finished a 5-2 homestand that started with losing two of three games to the sinking Cubs.
“We’ve got to focus and bear down on these next couple series, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves. Take it one day at a time, go out there, play baseball. We’ve got a great team we’re going to go up against in Milwaukee,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said about trying to gain ground in the division. “We’re going to go out there and see what happens.”
Three solo home runs by the Reds -- including two by Tyler Naquin -- boosted a strong pitching performance by Vladimir Gutierrez. In his seven innings, Gutierrez allowed one run on three hits and one walk with eight strikeouts. He is 5-1 with a 1.86 ERA in his last six starts.
Leading off the bottom of the first inning against Marlins starter Sandy Alcantara, Naquin hit a 2-2 pitch to right-center field for a homer.
“Their starter, he has really great stuff,” Reds manager David Bell said. “To get him on the first at-bat before he has a chance to settle in, it was one run, but it did change the game. It changed the complexion of the game really for almost the entire game.”
It was a 1-1 game in the Cincinnati fifth inning when Moustakas led off and slugged Alcantara’s 1-2 slider to right field for a homer. Besides giving his team the go-ahead run, Moustakas snapped a career-long 0-for-26 skid. He was 1-for-32 over his last 11 games.
“Been struggling a little bit at the plate, and to hit a home run or just get a hit in general felt pretty good,” Moustakas said. “In that situation, a go-ahead home run was huge for not only me, but the boys. Against a guy that was throwing today with as nasty stuff as he had. It was a big spot in the game for us, and I’m definitely happy I came through right there.”
Gutierrez pumped strikes, especially early, in impressive fashion. The rookie’s first 14 pitches of the game -- and 20 of his first 22 -- went for strikes. By the end of fourth inning, he threw only nine balls out of 49 pitches.
“It's always important to get ahead in the count,” Gutierrez said via translator Jorge Merlos. “So for me, getting ahead in the count and not giving them an opportunity to get a chance to get a hit right there, not giving me a chance to throw over the middle of the plate.”
The only run against Gutierrez came on a 59.6 mph roller off the bat of Jesus Sanchez that went for an RBI double down the left field line in the fourth inning.
In the bottom of the eighth with one out against reliever Anthony Bass, Naquin returned and hit an 0-2 pitch into the right-field seats. During his 12-game hitting streak, Naquin is batting .457 with five homers and 11 extra-base hits.
Cincinnati (69-57), which sits 7 1/2 games back in the NL Central and a game ahead of the Padres (68-58) for the second NL Wild Card spot, opens a three-game series vs. the Brewers (76-49) in Milwaukee on Tuesday.
“Three huge games,” Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson said. “But if we can go out there and sweep them, that’s going to make things really interesting. They’re huge. We know that. They know that. It’s probably going to be some of the best baseball played during those three games. Keep doing what we’re doing and have fun with it.”
The Brewers and Reds have split the first 16 games of their season series, with the road team winning an astounding 13 of the 16 games. They last met in seven consecutive games that bookended the All-Star break, with the Reds taking three of four at American Family Field and the Brewers sweeping three games at Great American Ball Park.
“With them being as far back as they are, it’s kind of a big series, I think, for them more than for us,” said Brewers pitcher Corbin Burnes. “Right now, they’re tied for that second Wild Card spot, so every game is big for them.”
Burnes (8-4, 2.13 ERA) will start on Tuesday vs. Tyler Mahle (10-4, 3.78). Mahle is a much better pitcher on the road, however, with a 7-1 record and 1.86 ERA in away games. Luis Castillo (7-12, 4.35), who allowed one earned run over seven innings on Thursday vs. Miami, is scheduled to pitch Wednesday vs. Brandon Woodruff (7-7, 2.48). And Sonny Gray (5-6, 4.15) -- coming off a seven-scoreless innings performance Friday -- will pitch the finale on Thursday against Brett Anderson (4-7, 4.15).
Winning the division is a long shot for the Reds, but it’s still viewed as achievable.
“We know what we need to do,” Bell said. “We all know that’s the first goal, right? That’s the first goal, and we don’t really spend much more time on it than that.”