By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — With both teams in deep despair, so far out of first place they both need powerful periscopes to find the first place Chicago Cubs, it is difficult to discern how good Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Robert Stephenson was Sunday afternoon in Great American Ball Park.
Stephenson pitched six shutout innings and the Reds scored five runs in the sixth inning en route to a 5-2 victory.
Stephenson did it against the Pittsburgh Pirates, who appear to have tossed in the towel, waved the white flag, shouted, “No mas, no mas.”
The Pirates have lost 10 of their last 11 and are playing like Dead Men Walking. The Reds swept the three-game series and are within two games of climbing out of last place and dropping the Pirates into the cellar.
STEPHENSON PITCHED SIX INNINGS and gave up no runs and only one hit, a double to opposing pitcher Gerrit Cole. He walked three and struck out eight.
For the past two days the Reds have shown much more energy, though. On Saturday the two teams went six innings without a run before the Reds scored two in the seventh and won, 2-1.
On Sunday, both teams were scoreless through five innings, with one hit each.
But Pittsburgh starter Gerrit Cole walked Jesse Winker on a full count to open the sixth. Eugenio Suarez, batting second for the first time this season, rocketed his 26th home run to give the Reds a 2-0 lead.
Cole then walked Joey Votto (no big news there) and Scooter Gennett ripped his 25th home run.
NOT ONLY DID THAT END Cole’s day, Gennett became the fifth Reds player with 25 or more home runs (Joey Votto 35, Adam Duvall 31, Scott Schebler 27, Suarez 26, Gennett 25).
That ties the team record — five guys (no fries) with 25 or more homers set in 1956 when the Reds hit 221 home runs, a major league record at the time.
The Reds have hit 207 home runs this season, but have given up 234.
STEPHENSON WAS IN MINOR difficulty only once when he walked Chris Stewart to open the third. After pitcher Cole failed twice to bunt, he doubled over center fielder Scott Schebler’s head, putting runners on third and second with no outs.
But Stephenson stayed spotless by striking out John Jaso, inducing a shallow pop-out to short out of Jordan Luplow and coaxing a foul pop to the catcher out of Andrew McCutchen.
After rookie Sal Romano pitched eight scoreless innings Saturday against the Pirates, rooke Stephenson extended the streak to 14 with his six innings.
The Pirates scored their two runs in the eighth inning when relief pitcher Luke Farrell gave up a walk and a two-run home run to John Jaso, he of the braided hair as long as a Louisville Slugger.
EVEN THOUGH STEPHENSON gave up only one hit over six innings, manager Bryan Price had some doubt about Stephenson in the early going and worried if he might not make five innings.
“The first three innings he was all over the place and was not as sharp, didn’t have real good stuff, had a lot of big misses,” said Price. “My concern was when to pull the plug. At one point I said to (pitching coach) Mack Jenkins, ‘Hey, we can try to get through five if it stays like this. . .he just didn’t look sharp.
“Then all of a sudden in innings four, five and six, here he comes,” said Price. “That’s exactly what you want to see — to see the struggles and how he battles and pitches out of situations. He didn’t give up any runs when he wasn’t sharp and then he was able to get on a roll.”
STEPHENSON HAD SOME inside help, too. Earlier in the day it was announced that relief pitcher Drew Storen will undergo season-ending (and 2018, too) Tommy John surgery.
But Storen was in the clubhouse Sunday to aid and abet Stephenson when he needed it. He issued a one-out walk in the first, but struck out Andrew McCutchen and Josh Bell to end the inning.
“It was funny in that after the first inning I came into the clubhouse to change out my jersey,” said Stephenson. “Storen was in here and he told me to take my time, gather myself and stay back a little longer. Staying back gives my arm a chance to make better pitches. After those first couple of innings I made the adjustments and made better pitches.”
WHEN ASKED WHAT HIS mind-set was when he had runners on third and second with no outs in the third, he smiled and said, “My thought process was that I’m not going to let anybody score. I tried to make my best pitches right there and get three outs.”
And he did.
He admits, though, earlier this season his thinking would have been different and he said, “If you asked me a year ago I would have said I was just going to try to throw the ball over the plate and find contact. Now I’ve gotten a lot better in situations where I know I can bear down and get people out with my best stuff.”
After an 0-and-5 start early this season that got him demoted to Class AAA Louisville, an ultra-confident Stephenson is now 5-and-5.
“Part of it is that we have a lot of young pitchers in this clubhouse and that helps to be around people who are experiencing the same things as you,” he said. “Just being able to be here as long as I have I feel more comfortable.”
PRICE AND THE REDS are not comfortable inhabiting last place and with the Pirates within grasp there is a goal and it isn’t to pass go, it is to scramble out of last place.
“It is big for us to try to get out of last place, and it should be,” said Price. “We should all strive for a lot more. We want to get back to where we’re talking about the top of the division and not the bottom. But at this point, with where we are, we have to shoot for the next-best thing. And, unfortunately, that’s fourth place, but it is better than where we are now.”