By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — Billy Hamilton walked down a hallway toward the Cincinnati Reds clubhouse Friday afternoon and checked the multi-colored lineup board hanging on the wall, as he always does.
Then he stopped. Then he looked again. Then he did a double take.
“I saw my name and I wondered, ‘Is this a mistake or a misprint or something?’” said Hamilton.
What he saw was his name on top of the order, batting leadoff, for the first time since May 29 when he was hitting .227 with a .272 on-base average. His average is up to .247 and his on-base percentage is at .294, warranting the move back to leadoff. And Hamilton was happier than a greyhound chasing a mechanical rabbit.
“That’s where I want to be,” he said. “I don’t want to be below one or two and I prefer one. Leadoff is where I’ve always been. Manager Bryan Price told me, ‘If you don’t earn the spot, it is not going to be yours.’”
HAMILTON WAS THE CATALYST in Cincinnati’s 6-2 victory over the last place Arizona Diamondbacks. He singled twice in the first two innings and stole three bases, merrily celebrating the return to where he wants to be in the batting order as the Reds scored three runs in the first after Arizona scored two in the top of the first.
On the first pitch of the bottom of the first, Hamilton lined a single to center. On the second pitch he bolted for second and was called out, but a replay/review showed he was safe, his 28th stolen base. Arizona pitcher Archie Bradley, obviously distracted, walked Cozart and Joey Votto crushed a three-run home run, his 17th, to give the Reds a 3-2 lead.
On his second at bat, with one out in the second, Hamilton lined a full-count single to left field. And on the first pitch to Cozart to stole second. And he stole third, No. 30 of the season. That sojourn didn’t produce anything, though, because Cozart struck out and Votto lined to third.
HAMILTON WAS DROPPED FROM leadoff due to a minuscule on-base average and an even more microscopic batting average, buried in the No. 7 and No. 8 spot.
Recently, because of an uptick in his production, Hamilton has been batting second behind Zack Cozart. And he has done so well in the two-hole that Price moved him back to leadoff Friday night against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“I took in what Price said and my job was to get back to the top of the limit,” said Hamilton. “I came here every single day and worked hard to get back up there because I don’t want to be any lower than one or two.”
When it sank in that he, indeed, was batting leadoff Friday, Hamilton said, “Oh, man, this is my time to show them that I deserve to be up there and want to be up there.”
PRICE GAVE A MULTITUDE OF reasons why he wants Billyball and his rapid running at the top of the order.
“The more you watch us play now that Billy is getting on base more, with Cozart hitting ahead of him, you know Zack is not the base-stealer and Billy is,” said Price. “Zack was doing a great job and continues to be a reliable leadoff guy, but if I can get Billy on ahead of Zack, well, Zack is leading us in doubles and he can drive him in from first with a double or from second with a base hit.
“And with Billy putting the infield in motion, Zack is going to have more of an open infield to work with,” he added. “There are a lot of good things that can happen if it plays out the way I anticipate.”
Price said it may seem like a minor tweak, but to him it could be something big, “It can spark our offense. The speed component was what was missing with Zack leading off and Billy batting second. By flipping them we get a guy on who can steal a base and force the situation to where Zack sees better pitches and it puts him into an RBI situation.”
ASKED WHAT IT WAS LIKE for him to bat seventh and eighth, Hamilton said, “When you hit seventh it is hard for you to steal because if you do they are going to walk our No. 8 guy and then our pitcher is going to be hitting. It’s really tough to play my game down at the bottom of the order.
“My game is being aggressive and I’m going to keep doing at the plate in the one-hole what I was doing lower in the order,” he said. “It’s a process of keep learning and keep getting better.”
THE REDS WORE THEIR RED jerseys, ones they only wear for weekend day games. But starting pitcher Dan Straily, 4-ands-1 while wearing red No. 59, asked if the team would wear them Friday night. They did and now Straily is 5-and-1 dressed in red.
He gave up a home run to Jean Segura, leading off the game, then a double to No. 2 hitter Michael Bourn, who scored on a sacrifice fly to a 2-0 Diamondbacks lead in the top of the first.
That’s all they got, though, against Straily. He went six innings and gave up two runs, five hits, walked three (one intentionally) and struck out eight to push his season’s record to 5-and-6.
Straily was followed to the mound by the ever-sharp Raisel Iglesias, who pitched two shutout hitless innings, walking one and striking out three.
After scoring three in the first, the Reds got a run in the sixth on catcher Tucker Barnhart’s fifth home run and another run in the seventh on a two-out single to right by Brandon Phillips that scored Votto from third base. And just for point of emphasis and to make Price seem a wize sage, Hamilton walked in the bottom of the eighth and scored from first on Cozart’s double to the left field corner.
Yes, the night belonged to Hamilton and Price said, “It’s something I wanted to try once we saw more production from Billy and I think he is there. Let’s see where it goes.”
For the Reds, graced with the blessing of favorable scheduling since the All-Star break, it has been a winning period — two of three from Milwaukee, two of three from Atlanta and a victory over Arizona in the first game of a three-game series, giving the Reds a 5-and-2 record since the break.