By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — For the past couple of weeks, Cincinnati Reds utility player Alex Blandino has earned a couple of behind-the-back nicknames: The Gaper or The Looker.
That’s because it seemed nearly every time he came to bat he was called out on strikes — caught looking or caught gaping.
That wasn’t the case Monday night in Great American Ball Park against the Chicago White Sox when he came to bat in the eighth inning as a pinch-hitter with his team tied.
On a 2-and-2 count, Blandino refused to look at strike three. Instead, he slammed a two-run double down the right field line, scoring Jose Peraza from third and Adam Duvall from second to give the Reds a 5-3 victory.
Blandino’s reluctance to pull the two-strike trigger hasn’t gone unnoticed. As he talked with the media after the game, teammate Eugenio Suarez yelled, “Amazing things happen when you swing the bat.”
Said Blandino, who has questioned some of those strike three calls, “It is tough to talk about the strike zone, especially as a rookie. But some adjustments need to happen on my end. And part of it is being more aggressive earlier in the count.”
Manager Jim Riggleman made the same point when Blandino took a couple of strikes before delivering.
“He took a couple of strikes right there to get the 2-and-2 count,” said Riggleman. “He took a couple of pitches that were right there on the outside corner. Then he got a breaking ball and he hit it. That’s dangerous territory when you are taking fastball strikes.”
This time it worked out.
The Reds entered the eighth inning down 3-1 but scored four runs off White Sox relief pitcher Chris Volstad, a guy who was 4-and-10 last year at Triple-A Charlotte and is now 1-and-5 for the White Sox.
James Shields is the man the White Sox hang all their dollar signs on — $21 million a year from a $70.2 payroll, second lowest in the majors.
For most of this season it has been a bummer investment because Shields, a highly-touted right handed pitcher, walked to the Great American Ball Park mound Monday with a 3-and-9 record and a 4.23 earned run average.
The Reds, though, saw The Best of Shields after his first pitch of the game to Scott Schebler landed eight rows deep in the right field bleachers, Schebler’s 11th home run.
After that, though, Shields gave up zero, zip, nada — no more runs, three more hits. Shields pitched 6 2/3 innings and gave up one run, four hits, walked four and struck our three. For his efforts he got zero, zip, nada in return.
For Reds starter Luis Castillo it was tempting fate once too often. He retired the first batter all seven times over the first seven innings, but six times the White Sox had runners on base without scoring.
Castillo did it again in the seventh when he retired the first batter but Cincinnati native Adam Engel (Loveland High School) singled to left field.
Engel was sacrificed to second base and that came on Castillo’s 101st pitch and manager Jim Riggleman decided not to test the fates any longer.
He brought in Amir Garrett and he was not up to silencing the Chisox. With two outs Yoan Moncado doubled to left field to tie it, 1-1, and Yolmer Sanchez singled to left to push his team in front, 2-1.
The Reds threatened in the seventh and rid themselves of Shields when he gave up a single to Adam Duvall and walked Schebler with two outs. Chicago manager Rick Renteria brought in Juan Minaya to face Tucker Barnhart and he walked him on four pitches to fill the bases for Joey Votto.
That forced Renteria to dip into his bullpen again to bring in left hander Luis Avian. He fell 3-and-0 behind, but Votto swung at the 3-and-0 and drove it to the warning track in center field. . .where it was caught for the third out
Votto also swung at a 3-and-0 pitch in his previous at bat and fouled it off before lining out to right field — a guy who has drawn 64 walks, second most in the National League.
“Tucker was hitting 3-and-0, too, but the pitch was in and he took it for ball four,” said Riggleman. “It’s a matter of trust. I trust that Tucker is going to swing at a strike and take a ball and I trust that Votto is going to swing at a strike and take a ball. That’s what Votto did, he took a good rip at that pitch.”
Castillo’s line was 6 2/3 innings, one run, six hits, no walks, six strikeouts, a fine line but a line that got him nothing more than a no-decision.
The White Sox added to their lead in the eighth inning against Jared Hughes when Avisail Garcia hit a one-out home run, his fifth, only the second home run given up by Hughes this season.
The White Sox brought in Volstad to pitch the bottom of the eighth and he displayed one of many reasons why the White Sox are 29-and-55.
Volstad quickly gave up a single to Scooter Gennett and a double to Eugenio Suarez, put runners on third and second with no outs. He struck out Brandon Dixon then walked Jose Peraza to fill the bases.
That earned Volstad a chat with pitching coach Don Cooper as Adam Duvall dug into the batter’s box. Duvall grounded to first base and Gennett beat first baseman Matt Davidson’s throw home on a play that was challenged by the White Sox and confirmed that Gennett was safe. Billy Hamilton hit a sacrifice fly to center field, tying the game, 3-3.
All first baseman Davidson had to do was step on the bag for an out. He started toward first, then changed his mind and threw home. So all catcher Omar Narvaez had to do was touch home plate for a force out. But he thought Davidson touched first so he needed to tag Gennett, who made a great slide and tagged home with his hand.
Duvall was part of a double switch to enter the game because it was his night to sit as part of the four-man outfield routine.
“We’ve drawn up some numbers to verify that the outfielder who doesn’t start has done an outstanding job coming into the game late as a pinch-hitter or in a double switch,” said Riggleman. “We’ve shown how well they’ve done as a pinch-hitter or come off the bench to get a couple of at bats. Their numbers are really good. So that aspect of it is a positive and that softens the blow a little bit for the guy not starting that day. He knows that I might get in there and get two or three at bats. Nobody is getting any rust on them, that’s for sure.”
Renteria stubbornly stuck with Volstad after Duvall’s fielder’s choice tied it, 3-3, and he paid dearly when Blandino punched his two-run double down the right field line to make it 5-3.
All that was left was for Reds closer Raisel Iglesias to pitch a 1-2-3 ninth for his 16th save and the Reds third straight victory and 10th in their last 13.