By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — In a game played with the heat of the inside a lit pizza oven, the two starting pitchers gave the opposition the cold shoulder for more than half of a baseball game Saturday night.
It was 94 degrees when the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals began play, but it was stone cold in the batter’s box.
That was until rookie Josh VanMeter struck for his first career home run, a two-run rip in the seventh inning that lifted the Reds to a 3-2 victory.
For VanMeter, it was almost a prove-it-to-us because he was a home run machine at Triple-A Louisville. But somebody tossed sugar in his gas tank with the Reds.
“Did that feel good? Oh, man. Like a weight off my shoulders,” said VanMeter. “I knew I got it, too. Normally I don’t show a lot of emotion, but emotion just took over.
“A dream come true to hit a home run in the big leagues,” he added. “You hit so many in a month in Triple-A (13 in April) and you get up here and you don’t hit one for 49 at bats and you wonder if you are ever going to hit one. Now I don’t have to think about it any more.”
His teammates noticed.
“I’ve caught some crap around here,” VanMeter said with a grin. “When you hit 13 homers in a month and then come up here and don’t hit one, they ask me, ‘Damn, where’s the power?’ I finally got it and it was so cool for all the guys to be so excited for me.”
It was exciting because it was VanMeter’s first and exciting because the Reds won after losing the first two of the four-game series.
Luis Castillo and Miles Mikolas turned the heat way down low as they engaged in a pitch-for-pitch scoreless duel for five innings.
It was a matter of who would draw first and would blink first.
The Cardinals drew first and Castillo blinked, a leadoff full-count home run into the right field bleacher by catcher and No. 8 hitter Matt Wieters.
And there was further possible trouble when pitcher Mikolas followed the Wieters home run with a double. But shortstop Jose Iglesias made an incredible back-to-the-infield backhanded snag of a pop-up in shallow left. Paul Goldschmidt struck out and Tyler O’Neill grounded out, leaving St. Louis in front, 1-0.
The Iglesias catch probably saved a run and a possible big inning. Left fielder VanMeter was charging in but couldn’t get there. When Iglesias snagged it, VanMeter said, “I said a dirty word. I was so surprised. I didn’t think anybody could catch that one.”
Said Castillo, “I don know what to say. I have to be grateful. I can’t even explain it. It was a really, really good play. He helped me a lot.”
It was all defense in this one as St. Louis turned three double plays in the first four innings and Cincinnati turned two in the first five innings.
For the Reds, Joey Votto hit into a double play in the first, Jose Peraza hit into one in the second and Yasiel Puig hit into one in the fourth as the Cardinals doubled their pleasure.
Through five inning, Castillo gave up three hits, two to Tommy Edman. Through five innings, Mikolas gave up three hits, two to Eugenio Suarez.
After Castillo gave up the sixth-inning home run, he was taken down for a pinch-hitter with one out in the bottom of the sixth. He threw 88 pitches and gave up one run, five hits, walked one and struck out four.
“Luis had another inning in him because he only had 88 pitches,” said manager David Bell. “But we had to do everything we could to win the game. I explained that to him and he got it. Who knows, he might have two more. It was all about trying to score a run.”
Incredibly, the pinch-hitter was Derek Dietrich and not-so-incredibly he was hit by a pitch, the 22nd time this season. Jesse Winker struck out, Joey Votto grounded out, end of inning.
The Reds hadn’t found second base through six innings, but they found second and home in the seventh. Eugenio Suarez led the inning with a full-count walk and Yasiel Puig doubled to center to tie it, 1-1.
And then it happened. Van Meter lined a 1-and-0 pitch for his first major league home run into the right field seats for a 3-1 Reds lead.
Amir Garrett, fresh off the injured list without a rehab appearance, pitched a perfect seventh inning with two strikeouts. He was rewarded with the win.
It wasn’t easy, though. Michael Lorenzen gave up a run in the eighth and had the tying run on third before Paul Goldschmidt lined to left.
Even though closer Raisel Iglesias was activated, he was not back from paternity leave, So Lorenzen returned to the mound for the ninth inning. He pitched a 1-2-3 inning for his sixth save.
While it was a win, it was a day on the baseball treadmill. The Chicago Cubs also won and the Reds remain nine games out of first place and snugly in last place.