By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — The first step for the Cincinnati Reds in the important four-game series against the Chicago Cubs was a stumble over a curb and a fall on their faces.
They put up the good fight early, but poor pitching and poor defense did them in during a 12-5 loss to the first-place Cubs.
In one of the biggest, most important games of the season, the Reds suffered the red-faced embarrassment of having position player Kyle Farmer pitch the last 1 1/3 innings.
The stiff punch in the chops dropped the fourth-place Reds eight games behind the Cubs, making it possible only to get within five games if they win the next three games.
The game quickly dissolved into a Battle of the Bullpens when neither starter survived beyond three innings.
In fact, Reds starter Alex Wood and Cubs starter Cole Hamels both pitched three innings, both gave up five runs and left with the game tied, 5-5.
So it became a Battle of the Bullpens and when that happens these days the Reds stroll into the argument mostly unarmed.
Newly acquired pitcher Kevin Gausman gave up two runs in two innings and David Hernandez gave up four in one inning.
Meanwhile, the Cubs found relief. Tyler Chatwood replaced Hamels and gave the Cubs three innings of no runs, one hit, one walk and a hit batter. He struck out the last three Reds he faced in the sixth inning.
The Cubs hit three home runs, two by recently acquired Nick Castellanos, and three doubles.
In the process of trying to help his helpless team, rookie right fielder Aristides Aquino popped some eyes in two facets of the game.
In the third inning, he hit a 445-foot upper deck home run that left the bat at 118.3 miles an hour, tying for the hardest hit ball in the majors this season.
Then he displayed the power in his arm. While making a throw to third base, he was clocked at 101.5 miles an hour, hardest throw by an outfielder in the majors this season.
He more than did his part with a double, home run, three RBI and a run scored. The only other positive was a 4 for 5 night by Phillip Ervin.
The Cubs scored a run in the first on a two-out walk to Kris Bryant and a double by Anthony Rizzo off Wood.
The Reds tied it in the bottom of the first with back-to-back two-out doubles by Eugenio Suarez and Aquino off Hamels. Hamels entered the game with an 11-and-2 career record against the Reds with a 1.97 earned run average.
Chicago scored four in the third with Castellanos starting it with a one-out home run. An error by second baseman Jose Peraza opened the gate for three more runs.
Down 5-1, the Reds scrambled back immediately in the bottom of the third with four of their own, highlighted by Aquino’s two-run rip.
So it was 5-5 when Gausman entered in the fourth. The second home run of the night by Castellanos broke the tie and the Cubs added another in the fifth on a two-out double by Jonathan Lucroy.
Catcher Lucroy was making his first start for the Cubs after the Los Angeles Angels released him and Chicago signed him.
It was 7-5 and still reachable by the Reds when Hernandez arrived in the seventh. He gave up a leadoff single to Albert Almora Jr and a home run to right field by Ian Happ. The Cubs added two more in the inning when Peraza, now playing shortstop, tried to make a barehanded grab on Anthony Rizzo’s slow roller. The ball slithered under his palm and into shallow left field, a two-run single and an 11-5 Cubs margin.
Hernandez gave up another run in the eighth and had two on and two outs when Farmer was placed on the mound. He ended the inning on a ground ball by Jason Heyward. Farmer’s pitches were so slow they didn’t record on the stadium radar screen. Most of them were dancing, darting knuckleballs.
Farmer retired the first two in the ninth with his blooper balls, gave up a single to Victor Caratini, then finished off his “pitching” debut by retiring Javier Baez on a fly ball. And for some strange reason, the right handed Baez batted left handed against Farmer.
What remained of the crowd on the first base side where Reds fans were seated cheered. But for the Reds it was a sad, embarrassing end to a sad, embarrassing evening.
Manager David Bell said he dislikes using position players to pitch, but when it happens it is out of necessity.
“You never what to do that and thankfully Kyle knew exactly what he was doing,” said Bell. “You never want to get somebody hurt. I never feel comfortable doing it.
“But I knew with his experience he would be able to handle it and he did,” Bell added. “He was throwing really slow so he was in no danger of hurting himself (or anybody else). He saved us so we didn’t have to use another pitcher which is very important for us right now.”
Bell’s diagnosis of Wood’s start — three innings, seven hits, five runs (two earned) was that he is still whipping his arm into shape after missing four months of the season.
“In a lot of ways he is still working his way back,” said Bell. “He was outstanding his last time out, but it is going to take him some time to get back in the flow. He’ll bounce back. It is still early in the season for him.”
But it is not early for the Reds and waiting for Wood is a luxury the team doesn’t have.
“This one wasn’t very good because I didn’t have fastball command,” said Wood. “With a good lineup like that, you get hand-cuffed when you have to throw your other pitches a little bit too much. I just wasn’t very good.”
Aquino is fast-becoming the people’s choice as the right field replacement for traded Yasiel Puig. In his last five games he is 9 for 15 with three homers and eight RBI.
“I also knew that I can hit the ball hard,” he said, when informed he had matched the highest exit velocity in the majors this year. “I kid my teammates that I have the most power on the team.”
Nobody argued the point.