By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — With the season nearly half over, it is time for the Cincinnati Reds to show their fans: “Are we in or are we out?”
On Friday night in Great American Ball Park, they gave a small sample size, a little statement that said, “We’re in,” a 6-3 victory over the Chicago Cubs.
They began play Friday night in familiar territory, a place of comfort for them the past four years. Last place. Is it squatter’s rights for the Reds?
The difference right now is that even though they reside in last place in the National League Central, they are close enough to first place to smell the roses, just 5 1/2 games behind the division-leading Cubs after Reds starter Sonny Gray put silencers on the Cubs bats to open a three-game series.
Gray held the Cubs scoreless through six innings before giving up a long distance two-run home run to Jason Heyward in the seventh. For 6 1/3 innings he held the Cubs to two runs, four hits, one walk and struck out six
If the Reds are serious about finding the top of the standings, the chance is there. Counting Friday night, 17 of the next 22 games are against NL Central contenders — Chicago (7), Milwaukee (7) and St. Louis (3).
So do the Reds sniff this sense of urgency, the need to make a statement now or forever hold their peace?
“Yeah, you never want to make too big of a deal from any one game,” said Reds manager David Bell. “But, yeah, it is an important homestand. We’re playing good teams in our own division.”
The Reds play three against the Cubs, four against the Brewers and two against the Cleveland Indians during this nine-game homestand that takes things to the All-Star break.
“We got to a point where we were playing really well and it was good for our team to see how good we can be (six straight wins). I know that that stretch went a long way, but now it is a matter of bouncing back (four straight losses before Friday) and we get to do it at home.
“We have nine games left to the All-Star break, a little bit of a sprint to the All-Star game and we’ll see how well we can play and how we stack up,” said Bell.
They stacked up well Friday night, but received a little nudge from Mother Nature.
Cubs starter Cole Hamels owned a career 11-and-1 record against the Reds when he gave up a run in the bottom of the first.
When Hamels came out to warm up for the second, he quickly walked off the mound with pain in his side.
He was replaced by left hander Mike Montgomery and the Reds tore into him like a Doberman on a bag of beef jerky.
Montgomery was permitted as many warm-up pitches as he needed when he replace Hamels. He should have taken one more than he did. His first pitch to Phillip Ervin was deposited into the left field seats, Ervin’s first home run to make it 2-0.
Six of the seven batters Montgomery faced in the fourth reached base and the only out he recorded was a sacrifice bunt by Reds pitcher Sonny Gray.
Nick Senzel drilled a two-run double and Joey Votto singled him home, Votto’s third hit of the game and 1,800th of his career. In celebration, he stole second. Eugenio Suarez walked and Yasiel Puig singled to fill the bases and ended Montgomery’s night before darkness covered the park.
Brad Brach replaced Montgomery and gave up a sacrifice fly to Jose Iglesias to make it 6-0. Montgomery’s cameo appearance was 2 1/3 innings, five runs, six hits, three walks and a home run.
It stayed 6-0 until Gray gave up an infield hit by Javier Baez to open the seventh. With one out Heyward hit one so far that neither right fielder Yasiel Puig nor center fielder Nick Senzel moved a muscle as the ball landed 420 feet from home plate.
David Hernandez replaced Gray and Addison Russell tripled to the left field corner and scored on Albert Almora Jr.’s sacrifice fly, cutting Cincinnati’s lead to 6-3.
Things got scary and hairy for the Reds in the eighth when Amir Garrett issued a one-out walk and hit a batter, bringing the potential tying run, Javier Baez, to the plate.
Bell replaced Garrett with Michael Lorenzen. He unplugged the rally by getting successive ground outs from Baez and Willson Contreras.
Lorenzen pitched the ninth and gave up a two-out single before striking out Victor Caratini to end it, Lorenzen’s fifth save.
Joey Votto put together four singles and a walk, lifting his batting average from .257 to .268. Scooter Gennett made a quiet return. For his first start of the season he didn’t get the ball out of the infield. He struck out, grounded out twice and beat an infield single. Alas, after the single he was picked off first base.