Reds pick up rare win in struggling start to season

CINCINNATI — Sunday was perfect for baseball, a sunny, 83-degree spring day and the Great American Ball Park should have been sold out. Instead, there was a broad sea of empty red seats when the game against the St. Louis Cardinals began at 1:40 p.m. because the home Cincinnati Reds are playing before a skeptical audience this season.

The Reds, who appeared to make some hare-brained late-spring-training trades, and have had guys wounded and sidelined, came into the game on an 11-game losing streak and carrying a 2-13 record.

It wasn’t clear how many fans came to see the Reds win or came just to attend Major League Baseball.

Impatience was not helped when team president Phil Castellini made some ill-advised remarks out of pique, suggesting in a radio interview the fans had no choice but to support the Reds or someone would buy the team from his family and move it.

“Be careful what you wish for,” he said.

Fans would just like to see the team win something and make the playoffs, not immediately sink to the bottom of the National League Central Division standings with the worst record in baseball.

Last Saturday, someone hired an airplane to circle the stadium flying a banner to tweak Castellini. It read, “Where ya gonna go? Already gone. Thx Phil.” Just as visual was the sight of a handful of fans in the stands with paper bags over their heads, harkening back to the old losing New Orleans Saints called “The Aints.”

The Reds began the game with a lineup of “Who’s he?” guys. Except for first baseman Joey Votto, who was not around for the first game in 1869, but seemingly since. With a lifetime average of .300, spread over 16 seasons, all with the Reds, every time Votto breathes a chant of his name goes up.

Let’s just say positioning of merchandise in the team stores put the Votto jersey front and center and those belonging to the other strangers with one foot back in AAA hanging behind them.

St. Louis countered with a winning team featuring Paul Goldschmidt, Yadier Molina, Nolan Arenado and a second-time around Albert Pujols. The NL adding the designated hitter enabled the 42-year-old Pujols to come home to the Cardinals for the last season of his career. Oh yeah, St. Louis started Adam Wainwright, the Methusela of the Mound, who at 40 has 186 career wins.

It may be that this season was jinxed from the start because the Reds did not begin the season at home. The Reds used to even get underway before other teams in homage to their ancient, first-pro-team beginnings, as well as at home.

Not this year. It was the first time since 1990 Cincinnati started the season on the road and only the third time since 1890. Nobody does opening day like Cincinnati, with a parade and sense of occasion. These early results may represent karma biting back for messing with tradition.

Or simply because management made bad news, letting key guys walk in free agency or traded them away. Throw in injuries and the Reds were doomed to this slow start. Second baseman Jonathan India, the 2021 NL rookie-of-the-year, has been hurt with a hamstring problem. Third-baseman Mike Moustakas strained a bicep. Catcher Tyler Stephenson was hurt on a play at the plate.

After hitting .309 and making the All-Star team, Nick Castellanos opted out of his contract to become a free agent. After blossoming into a .305-hitting All-Star in 2021, Jesse Winkler was traded during spring training, along with Eugenio Suarez for guys not with the Reds. That swap seemed to spark fan anger. This all sent the message Cincinnati couldn’t, or wouldn’t compete in the payroll realm.

For all of that, although cheered for each plate appearance, Pujols had a rotten day, striking out and popping out twice to foul territory, and then had someone pinch-hit for him. Wainwright struggled. Reds rookie southpaw Nick Lodolo, a former high draft pick, collected his first Major League victory as the Reds spiked the losing streak with a 4-1 victory.

The scoreboard flashed, “Reds Win” after the last pitch. But that may be a rarity this summer.