By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — They say Great American Small Park gives pitchers migraine headaches and sleepless nights. They say smart pitchers fake sore arms and stiff necks when it is their turn to pitch in GASP.
That wouldn’t include Cincinnati Reds pitcher Sonny Gray, who probably has a water-color ‘Home, Sweet Home’ sign hanging in the home dugout.
Including another superb etching Tuesday night against the San Diego Padres, Gray is 7-and-0 over his last seven starts in GASP.
On this night, Gray engaged San Diego’s Cal Quantrill in a shut down pitcher’s duel and Gray emerged with a 3-2 victory.
He held the Padres to one run on four hits, walked three and struck out 10 over six innings. That’s three straight games with 10 or more strikeouts for the guy with the teen-age face and southern twang.
“No big deal,” he says. “I love pitching here.”
The Reds have won 14 of Gray’s 18 starts this season. During his last 10 starts he is 6-and-1 with a 1.50 earned run average and has been victimized by blown saves three times.
If he isn’t the Ace of the Reds’ staff right now, he is Ace/1A, just half-a-step behind Luis Castillo.
Newly acquired infielder Freddy Galvis broke a 1-1 tie in the sixth inning with a two-run home run. And he had offensive and defensive help from Josh VanMeter, a stranger in two locales in this game.
He was batting leadoff for the first time and he was playing first base, an unfamiliar position, while Joey Votto resides on the injured list.
VanMeter had two hits and scored the team’s first two runs. And he made a top-shelf defensive playing, stopping a hard-hit ball slammed by Josh Naylor in the third inning. After he stopped the ball, he began an inning-ending double play.
VanMeter had an orchestra-seat view of Gray at work and loved what he saw.
“Sonny has been incredible,” said VanMeter. “I saw where that’s three starts in a row with 10 strikeouts. That is incredible. I love watching him pitch. He plays and pitches with fire and that kind of rubs off on everybody else.”
VanMeter basically is The Man Without a Position. Manager David Bell plugs him in where needed — second base, third base, right field, left field, center field, first base.
“I just want to go out there and play,” he said. “It is what I love to do. I’m blessed. This is what I get to do. It doesn’t matter where I play, as long as I get to play and help the team win.”
There was one caveat. No catching.
“I told them I don’t want to catch because I want to be able to walk when I’m 40,” he said.
And there is no gray area as to where Sonny Gray plays. The Gray Area is the pitcher’s mound.
“He is pitching with so much confidence and striking guys out,” said Bell. “He had a great fastball tonight that went with the breaking ball that has worked so well for him.”
Gray, whose signature pitches are breaking balls, confused the Padres early in the game with a fastball that was full of moving parts.
“I had the fastball early, but it was a little sporadic late,” said Gray. “It had some good life on it early, for sure.”
Gray gave up a pair of one-out singles in the first, but escaped damage by striking out the side.
Quantrill didn’t escape in the bottom of the first, although he had two outs when the Reds scored. Josh VanMeter opened with a single, stole second and continued to third on a throwing error by catcher Austin Hedges.
Aristides Aquino blooped a two-out single to right, one hit so softly that if he were a fisherman he would have thrown it back. He kept it, though, a run-scoring single and a 1-0 Reds lead.
Gray and Quantrill then engaged in pitching warfare, matching each other pitch-for-pitch.
After getting two hits in the first inning, the Reds had only one more through five innings off Quantrill.
And San Diego had only one baserunner after through five after its two hits in the first inning. That runner was a walk to Greg Garcia in the third and he was erased as part of a double play.
The intrigue thickened in the sixth when San Diego’s Josh Naylor crushed a two-out 1-and-2 pitch over the center field wall, tying the game, 1-1.
That run ended Gray’s scoreless innings streak at 23, the longest since Tom Browning strung together 23 consecutive zeroes in 1990.
“I was very aware of the streak, but I didn’t want to talk about it to see what happened,” said Gray. “Until I gave up that home run. . .then I talked about it. I was aware, for sure. I was just trying to keep it going for as long as I could. I’ll start over.”
Gray said he messed up on the home run pitch, “Because I was kind of stubborn. I shook off Tucker Barnhart’s signals about five times to get to the fastball. It deserved to go for a home run.”
After the home run, Gray gave up a bloop single to Manny Machado and issued full count walk to Eric Hosmer and Francisco Mejia to fill the bases.
He escaped with the 1-1 tie when Manuel Margot lined hard to center field.
It didn’t take long for the Reds to recoup and recover. Josh VanMeter led the sixth with a single and Freddy Galvis followed with an opposite-field two-run home run. It was his 21st, third as a member of the Reds, and gave his team a 3-1 lead.
Although Amir Garrett hadn’t pitched in more than eight days due to his suspension, manager David Bell brought him into the game in the eighth inning to protect the two-run lead.
The left handed Garrett promptly threw seven straight balls out of the strike zone to the first two hitters, both left handers. Eight of his nine pitches were balls — two walks that had two Padres on base with no outs.
Michael Lorenzen replaced Garrett and one run scored on a throwing error by shortstop Jose Iglesias. A couple of fly balls, the last one a deep drive to center by Francisco Mejia, ended the threat with the Reds clinging to a 3-2 lead.