By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell decided to rest both Christian Yelich and Yasmani Grandal Wednesday night in Great American Ball Park against the Cincinnati Reds.
That meant the removal of 49 home runs and 114 RBI from his lineup.
Reds starting pitcher Sonny Gray said, “God bless you, Craig, and thank you very much.” Then Gray sandpapered the remnants of Milwaukee’s lineup — eight shutout innings on four hits with 12 strikeouts as the Reds silenced the Brewers, 3-0.
And just like that, the Reds are only 4 1/2 game out of first place despite the fact they are four games under .500 and still occupying last place in the National League Central.
It wasn’t as easy as it looks, either. Gray and Milwaukee starter Jhoulys Chacin engaged in a nerve-wracking 1-0 battle for six innings.
The only run the Reds scored off Chacin, 3-and-8 with a 5.60 earned run average when the night began, was a home run torched by Yasiel “The People’s Choice” Puig in the second inning, his 19th.
The Reds finally added a couple of runs, one in the seventh when Puig singled and scored on a single by Jose Iglesias, and one in the eighth on Puig’s sacrifice fly.
Puig, scorching hot during these early hot July days, had two hits, scored two and drove in two.
That night, though, belonged to Gray, who leveled his record at 5-and-5.
And there was a defining moment in the eighth inning. With the Reds leading, 2-0,
Counsell sent Grandal up to pinch-hit. Gray walked him on four pitches, Gray’s only walk of the night.
Manager David Bell emerged from the dugout and trudged toward the mound. Most of the 22,685, believing Gray’s night was over, stood and cheered.
But when Bell reached the mound, Gray said, “Can I please finish this?” Bell turned on his heels and left without Gray and the crowd cheered even louder.
When Gray ended the inning by retiring Lorenzo Cain on a fly ball to right the cheers could be heard at Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati International Airport, about 20 miles away.
“I was a little in between about leaving him in or taking him out,” said Bell. “After the walk I wanted to make sure he had another hitter in him. There was no doubt, when I saw the look on his face. You can tell when somebody means it.
“He definitely had another hitter in him and wanted that opportunity. That was easy to give him that opportunity,” Bell added.
Gray said he was invigorated by the reaction of the fans, the cheers when he stayed in, the roar when he got the last out in the eighth and the standing ovation as he left the field.
“It was a big moment, a big at bat and I’m glad I could get him out,” said Gray. “The ovations were great, the fans were awesome.
“I don’t know how much fans realize it but fans can give you that little burst that you need to get through the seventh or the eighth or the ninth inning,” he said. “That gave me a little extra pep in my step when they were giving me a little love. I was glad to be able to do what I did to give it back.”
What Gray gave to the Brewers was a heavy dose of curveballs and all four hits were singles. His 12 strikeouts tied his career best and six of the strikeouts came on his curveball.
“I had a good curveball tonight and I used it and executed my fastball,” he said. “I made some great pitches when I needed them. I only shook off (catcher) Curt Casali one time, and gave up a hit, so he did a beautiful job of balancing fastballs and curveballs.
“The curveball has been my best pitch my whole life, not just in the big leagues, but my whole life,” said Gray. “It was good tonight and I sure used it, for sure.”
Gray was in minor difficulty only once and that was in the second inning. Eric Thames led the inning with an infield hit to deep second base. With one out, Ben Gamel singled to put runners on second and first.
From then on, Gray became Master of the Hill. He struck out Tyler Saladino and ended the inning with a ground ball from Manny Pina.
The Brewers never put more than one runner on base the rest of the way and only three times against Gray. They had a one-out single in the fifth, a leadoff single in the sixth that concluded with a double play and the two-out walk in the eighth.
“Chacin threw the ball great and it was a tight game and he did a great job,” said Gray. “We did just enough.”
On the downbeat, second baseman Scooter Gennett left the game with a tight left groin. It was a right groin injury during spring training that cost him the first half of the season.
Since coming back Gennett has wrestled with his timing. When he left the game he was 2 for 19. One of the two hits was an infield hit and the other was a line drive, the only ball he hit solidly since his return. He was evaluated after the game and is listed as day-to-day.