By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — It seems as if it is such a small hill to climb, but to the Cincinnati Reds it is as tall, treacherous and as foreboding as Mount Everest.
After starting the season 1-and-8, the Reds scrambled back to four games under .500 nine times, just one win away from three-under.
Make it 0 for 9 at grasping three-under. The summit of Mount Everest remains untouched by the Reds.
The Pittsburgh Pirates unloaded on relief pitcher David Hernandez for four runs in the eighth inning, breaking a tie that provided the Pirates with an 8-5 victory in the first game of a day-night doubleheader in Great American Ball Park Monday.
The Pirates figured to be the perfect foil for the Reds, arriving in Cincinnati after being swept three games at home by the Los Angeles Dodgers and losers of five of their last six games.
Instead, the Pirates beat the Reds for the sixth time in seven games this season in the opener.
The Reds, though, bounced back like a red rubber ball in the second game, scoring six runs in the first inning, highlighted by a grand slam home run by J0se Iglesias that launched the Reds to an 8-1 victory.
So once again they are four games under .500 and get their 10th chance to climb to three under when they play the Pirates Tuesday night.
The Pirates called up rookie Mitch Keller, 5-and-0 at Class AAA Indianapolis, to make his major league debut in the. second game. He won’t forget it. He walked two of the first three hitters, Nick Senzel and Eugenio Suarez when he had them 0-and-2 and he paid heavily. Iglesias smashed his first career grand slam and the first of the season for the Reds.
He settled in after that and gave up no more runs and struck out seven over his four innings. And the Reds didn’t score again until Derek Dietrich and Yasiel Puig hit home runs on back-to-back pitches in the seventh inning.
Given six quick runs, Reds starter Sonny Gray kept the Pirates silent for five innings en route to his second win this season. He pitched six innings and gave up one run, five hits, walked and struck out seven.
In the first game, for the second straight time, Reds starter Luis Castillo was not on his best behavior. It took him 101 pitches to navigate 5 1/3 innings and he gave up three runs, six hits, walked four, hit a batter and committed a balk while striking out four.
With no score in the fourth, Castillo hit Melky Cabrera with a pitch with one out and then balked him to second. Cabrera took third on Colin Moran’s single and scored on an Elias Diaz sacrifice fly.
For four innings the Reds were silenced by Pirates starter Nick Kingham, who took an 8.76 earned run average to the mound. In May he was 0-and-1 and had given up 19 runs and 27 hits over 14 1/3 innings.
The Reds broke through in the fifth for three runs, an inning that began with a Jose Iglesias single and Castillo’s sacrifice bunt.
With two outs Nick Senzel, Joey Votto and Eugenio Suarez cracked back-to-back-to-back doubles, each driving in a run, enabling the Reds to grab a 3-1 lead.
The Pirates drew even in the sixth with two runs and knocked Castillo out of the game. Melky Cabrera and Colin Moran began the inning with singles.
Elias Diaz hit what should have been a double play, but the Reds got only one out because first baseman Joey Votto dropped the ball for an error. One run scored on Kevin Newman’s fielder’s choice on which Reds shortstop Jose Iglesias tried to make a blind flip and failed to get the out at second. And the Pirates tied it, 3-3, on pinch-hitter Gregory Polanco’s single against relief pitcher Amir Garrett.
“It is so rare, that dropped ball by Joey,” said Reds manager David Bell. “And Jose? I’m surprised he didn’t make that play because he makes every play and makes them in such a free way. You’d never want to take that away from him. It just didn’t work out.”
The Pirates barged in front, 4-3, in the sixth on a cloud-kissing home run to left field by budding superstar Josh Bell, his 17th home run this season and 48th RBI for the Pittsburgh first baseman.
The Reds filled the bases with one out in the seventh, but were only able to draw even, 4-4. With one out, Pirates relief pitcher Francisco Liriano walked No. 9 hitter Jose Peraza and leadoff hitter Nick Senzel on a full count. Joey Votto lined a hard single to left field, filling the bases.
Eugenio Suarez just missed a grand slam, but his drive to the base of the left field wall was caught, a mere game-tying sacrifice fly. Pinch-hitter Josh VanMeter hit one to the warning track in right field, but it was caught for the third out.
The Pirates pried it open in the eighth against David Hernandez with a four-run explosion. He gave up a double and hit a batter before Bryan Reynolds banged a two-run triple up the left center gap and Starling Marte followed with a two-run home run and an 8-4 Pittsburgh lead.
“A few tough breaks,” said Hernandez. “We were one tough play away with a play in center field by Nick Senzel. He came in to try to make a play (on Polanco’s double). That would have been two outs and nobody on. Give him a year ore two, or maybe even the end of the season, and he makes that play easily.
“And I thought I had Reynolds struck out (before his two-run triple),” Hernandez added. “I didn’t get the call (for strike three) and a couple of pitches later it’s a two-run triple. I just didn’t get the breaks and hopefully they’ll start going my way.”
The Reds made some soft noise in the eighth, loading the bases on Jesse Winker’s double and two walks. Pittsburgh close Felipe Vazquez came on to strike out Nick Senzel on a 3-and-2 pitch.
There was more soft noise by the Reds in the ninth, which began with Joey Votto soft-serving a bloop single down the left line for his third straight hit and 10th in the last four games.
Eugenio Suarez shot a single to right field, putting runners on third and first with no outs. Pinch-hitter Kyle Farmer struck out, pinch-hitter Curt Casali lofted a sacrifice fly to right and Yasiel Puig grounded out to end it.
Votto’s three straight hits and 10 in four games put a smile on Bell’s face, along with the hitting of Senzel and the continued success of Eugenio Suarez, making the top three spots in the Reds order deadly.
“We know how important Votto is to our team and even for him when the hits come the confidence starts to roll,” said Bell. “That’s been great. Geno continues to swing the bat really well and, Nick, has had some big hits.”