Cincinnati Reds

Cubs have dropped five straight against the Reds, learning there are no easy days in NL Central

Cubs have dropped five straight against the Reds, learning there are no easy days in NL Central

The Cincinnati Reds have beaten the Cubs seven times this season, including five times in the last two weeks.

This is the Reds team that was supposed to be in full rebuild mode, a Reds team pegged by anyone and everyone to finish last in the National League Central and be an utter non-factor during the 2018 season. All that, of course, can still happen and is happening, in a way. Even though the Reds have won 17 of their last 23 games, they are still a last-place team.

But the Reds were supposed to be a punching bag for the Cubs and other contending clubs this season. Not so much, it’s turning out, as the Cubs find themselves staring at a division race that keeps getting tougher. The Central has proven full of formidable foes. And while the first-place Milwaukee Brewers still seem to be missing a pitcher and the St. Louis Cardinals are not that far above .500 and the Pittsburgh Pirates are still the team that traded away its two best players over the offseason, the Cubs are learning that there are no easy games in this division.

“It’s really gotten better,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You look at the numbers on the stat sheet, they’re pretty good up and down. Bullpens, too. (Cincinnati’s) bullpen’s a lot better than it had been. Milwaukee, ourselves, et cetera. The pitching’s good in this division. But so is the offense. (Cincinnati’s) got a nice offensive club, so do we.

“It’s turned out to be a pretty tough division right now, it’s very strong, which is good. I want that. I want us to play, hopefully, what’s considered the best division in all of baseball. I think that should bring out the best in your players on a nightly basis. So give them credit, man, they’re playing a lot better.”

The Reds are on a nice little tear, and they brought that to Wrigley Field on Friday, when Tyler Mahle threw 6.2 innings of one-run ball and the Reds followed up their recent four-game sweep of the Cubs with a 3-2 win in the opener of this series. Raisel Iglesias picked up a five-out save, and while they were dealing with the same windy conditions that the Cubs’ offense was, the Reds scratched across enough runs to win the day.

Not something that would’ve been expected in the preseason.

But this Reds team does have its very bright spots. Scooter Gennett is almost certainly and deservedly going to the All-Star Game, and Eugenio Saurez could join him. Joey Votto is simply one of the greatest hitters ever. And reliever Michael Lorenzen is out-Ohtani-ing Shohei Ohtani, with three homers already this season in just eight at-bats.

It’s not a menacing roster like the Cubs or Brewers or even Cardinals have. But it’s certainly gotten the Cubs’ attention. And the team that was supposed to rule this division has even the last-place group biting at its heels.

“They’ve got a lot of confidence right now,” pitcher Mike Montgomery said Friday. “We saw it a couple weeks ago when we were at their place. They came out, their starter pitched a great game, and they battled. Their offense puts up good at-bats, and they’ve got some good players.

“We’re not going to take anyone lightly, especially them, especially now how they’ve shown that they’re not afraid to play against us.”

The Cubs entered Friday with the second-best winning percentage in the NL, and though consistency has eluded them for much of the season’s first half, they’ve managed to do plenty of winning, stay neck and neck with the Brewers for the division lead and remain a legit World Series contender. It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that once the starting pitching finally comes together — as president Theo Epstein predicted Friday that it will — the Cubs could pull away as the NL’s dominant team.

But it appears that the rest of the division is going to have something to say about that and not just the Brewers, also competing for that same title. The Reds and Pirates have been thorns in the Cubs’ side this season. The Reds have done their damage recently, and the Pirates had their early success against the Cubs and have won four of the nine head-to-head matchups.

The Cubs are going to have a challenging go of things the rest of the way with their division-mates. That includes the upstart Reds.

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

The Cubs and their fans may want to invent and use one of those Men In Black neuralyzers because the four-game series in Cincinnati was one to forget.

The Reds finished off a four-game sweep of the Cubs on Sunday with an 8-6 win. The way the Reds won the finale will be especially painful for the Cubs considering they led 6-1 after six innings. Mike Montgomery appeared to tire in the seventh inning and Pedro Strop got rocked out of the bullpen to lead to a seven-run seventh for the hosts.

The Reds have now won seven in a row and 10 of 12, but still sit 13 games under .500. Bizarrely, the Reds also swept the Dodgers, the Cubs’ next opponent, in a four-game series in May. Duane Underwood will start for the Cubs Monday against the Dodgers and make his major league debut.

Here are some other wild facts and figures from the series:

  • The last time the Reds swept the Cubs in a four-game series was back in 1983. That was the first week of the season and three weeks before the infamous Lee Elia rant.
  • One positive for the Cubs from the game was Montgomery’s start. Through six innings he allowed one run on three hits and two walks. However, he gave up a single, a double and a single in the seventh before Strop relieved him. Montgomery had gone six innings and allowed one run in each of his last four outings.
  • Strop was definitely a negative. On his first pitch, Strop gave up a home run to pinch-hitter Jesse Winker, the second home run for a Reds pinch-hitter in the game. Then Strop allowed a single, a walk, a single and a double before getting an out. Strop’s final line: 2/3 inning pitched, four runs, one strikeout, three walks, four hits.
  • The Cubs led in three of the four games this series, including two leads after five innings.
  • The Cubs were 5-for-23 (.217) with runners in scoring position in the series. On the season the Cubs are hitting .233 with RISP, which is 22nd in the majors and fourth-worst in the National League (but ahead of the division-rival Brewers and Cardinals).
  • The Reds outscored the Cubs 31-13 and scored at least six runs in every game. The Reds are now 6-3 against the Cubs this year after going a combined 17-40 against the Cubs from 2015-2017.

Reds pitcher Amir Garrett apparently held a grudge against Javy Baez for a year

Reds pitcher Amir Garrett apparently held a grudge against Javy Baez for a year

Baseball players don't forget grudges. Javy Baez and Reds pitcher Amir Garrett gave an example of that on Saturday.

Garrett struck out Baez in the seventh inning of the first game of the Cubs-Reds doubleheader. Garrett showed some excitement with the strikeout and then said something to Baez. They both started jawing at each other and suddenly the benches cleared.

At first glance, it looked like Garrett was a bit too excited to get a strikeout with no one on base. Turns out Baez had his own bit of swag for Garrett last year (Friday was the one-year anniversary) in the form of a grand slam at Wrigley Field.

This time Garrett got Baez and wanted to even things up a bit.

Things didn't get too feisty despite the benches clearing, but Anthony Rizzo did rush to Baez's side at some speed. This could be a matchup to keep an eye out for in the future.