By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — As the Cincinnati Reds stick their toes into unfamiliar waters this weekend, a more-than-meaningful four-game series against the Chicago Cubs, the talk of ‘The ‘Nati’ seems one-faceted.
To most, it is all about the starting rotation, how well-armed the Reds are with Alex Wood, Trevor Bauer, Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo lined up for the Cub invasion.
While that does seem eye-popping, fans must remember that Wood is making only his third start of the season and Bauer is making only his second start for the Reds.
So what is the undercurrent to the team’s sudden surge, a 10-and-5 spurt, that has kept them within a boarding-house reach of first place?
Pitcher/outfielder/pinch-hitter/pinch-runner Michael Lorenzen offered his opinion just hours before the Reds and Cubs began Game One of the series.
“The biggest thing for this team is the young guys stepping up,” he said. “I mean, where are we bringing these guys up from? It is unbelievable with Aristides Aquino, Josh VanMeter and Phillip Ervin.
“With them being able to do what they have been doing for us, the consistency they are showing, they are doing a ton for our team. I don’t know if they realize what they are doing for us, especially with the morale.
“They’ve come up with big hits in big situations and it has been awesome,” said Lorenzen.
The Reds had their eye on Aquino before he could drive. He was 16 when the Reds signed him out of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. He spent two years in the Dominican Summer League, nearly a season in the Arizona Instructional League and a year at Billings, Mont., in the Pioneer Rookie League.
He began blossoming at Class AA Pensacola in 2017 with 20 home runs. He hit 28 home runs at Class AAA Louisville before his recent call-up.
And it has been sudden magic, the perfect replacement in right field for the traded Yasiel Puig. With their similar body-builder physiques, it would be a toss-up which one would win baseball’s Mr. Universe contest.
After a 0-for 6 start in his first two games, Aquino’s bat became a red-hot poker. He has started five of the last six games and pinch-hit in the other since his call-up. He is 7-for-10 with two homers and five RBI in his last four games.
Josh VanMeter’s story is just as intriguing. He is one of those mysterious players-to-be-named-later. The Reds acquired him as the PTBNL after the Reds sent catcher Luis Torres to San Diego, just hours after the Reds selected Torres in the Rule 5 draft at the 2016 winter meetings.
The 24-year-old native of Ossian, Ind., displayed no propensity for power. He hit 12 home runs last year at Pensacola and Louisville over 128 games.
Then his power switch flicked on at full-scale this year at Louisville. He hit 11 home runs in April at Louisville and hit .358, sending the Reds into scramble mode. He wasn’t on the 40-man roster, but the Reds brought him up in early-May.
He struggled a bit and was sent back down, with a couple of brief recalls. His latest trip up began July 18 and he has solidified his place. Over 17 games he is hitting .344 with four homers, two doubles and seven RBI.
What makes VanMeter so enticing is that he is a second baseman, prefers second base, but has played just briefly. He is playing most of the time in left field or right field.
“He is an athlete with a great swing, with power, and I’m not afraid to play him anywhere,” said manager David Bell.
It has been a long and winding road, filled with rocks and mudholes for Phillip Ervin. He is a No. 1 draft pick (2013) who has had to push and shove his way toward the top — 5 1/2 years in the minors, a long time for a No. 1 pick.
After a solid spring training this year, he was once again dispatched to the minors. He was summoned to the big club on June 15 and stuck. Used mostly as a pinch-hitter and an outfielder against left-handed pitching, Ervin is hitting .341 overall and is 7 for 17 as a pinch-hitter with a home run and five RBI.
Michael Lorenzen is a very perceptive man.
RELIEF PITCHER JARED Hughes began serving his three-game suspension Thursday for allegedly throwing a pitch at a Pittsburgh Pirates batter that eventually led to the dugout-emptying brawl. That leaves the Reds one man short in the bullpen and a 24-man roster.
Relief pitcher Amir Garrett has yet to serve his eight-game suspension, so he is available until Hughes serves his time.
When a team has multiple players suspended, only one player at a time is required to sit it out.
AFTER SERVING HIS six-game suspension, manager David Bell returns to the dugout Thursday night. He watched the two-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels from a private suite in Great American Ball Park.
“It was tough not being in the dugout and I can’t wait to be fully engaged with our team, not just before and after games,” he said. “That’s my job and I’m glad to be back to be a part of it.”
On the eve of the team’s most important series of the season, Bell said, “I sense the excitement in the clubhouse. That’s exactly where we need to be when we are playing important games. Big series for us and we know we have our work cut out for us.
“We’ve had stretches where we’ve played well enough against good teams so that we believe we are good enough,” he added.
The Reds were 7-and-5 against the Cubs this season as this series began and Bell believes that should tell his team that it is just as good as the National League Central leaders.
“Any time we’ve been challenged with playing the best teams, we certainly haven’t won all of them or mastered them, but we’ve competed to a level that we know that we can play with any team. And it does give you confidence. And for several years now, when you go up against the Cubs, you know what you are going up against.”
The talk is over. The gauntlet is down. The opportunity is there. For the Reds, it is there for the taking.