By Hal McCoy
The MLB world is paying close attention to Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo, the top two starters in the 2023 Cincinnati Reds pitching rotation.
They best pay even close attention to the number three starter, Graham Ashcraft. He might be the best of the three.
The media is having fun quizzing the three starters, The Terrific Three, by asking, “Which one of you is the best?”
Before his start Sunday afternoon against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Great American Ball Park, Ashcraft was asked that question.
“I’m not going to answer that,” he said. “But I have my own idea.”
He answered it on the mound Sunday. Seven innings, one run, four hits, one walk, seven strikeouts and 95 mostly quality unhittable pitches.
And it led to a 3-1 victory and enabled the Reds to take the season-opening series, two games to one.
Ashcraft, a bulky 25-year-old 6-foot-2, 248-pound righthander, was never in grave danger.
He gave up a home run to Bryan Reynolds in the fourth inning while leading, 2-0. That was it. No other Pirate sniffed third base.
Before the Reynolds home run, former Reds outfieder Connor Joe led the third with a single and stole second base. He remained at anchor when Ashcraft retired the next three, the last one on second baseman Jonathan India’s slide-on-his-knees backhanded stab of Oneil Cruz’s ground ball.
After Reynolds’ home run led the fourth, Ashcraft walked Andrew McCutchen and he took second base on a passed ball. He, too, remained anchored when Ashcraft shoved aside the next three hitters.
He gave up a harmless two-out double to McCutchen in the sixth. He gave up a two-out single to Joe in the seventh and he advanced to second on a wild pitch. But Ashcraft left him standing on second the way all the Pirates stood there when they reached it.
There was nervousness in the eighth when Alex Young repladed Ashcraft. The first two Pirates reached on pinch-hitter Rodolfo Castro blooped a single to left and Cruz singled to left.
The put the potential tying runs on base. Reynolds lined to right and Castro took third.
Manager David Bell replaced Young with Derek Law and he, well, laid down the law. He coaxed a shallow fly ball from McCutchen and a weak ground ball from Carlos Santana to leave it at 3-1.
That provided Alexis Diaz with his first save opportunity and he trotted in from the bullpen accompanied by the now-famous Tommy Trumpet brassy and blaring song used by his brother, New York Mets closer Edwin Diaz, out for the season with an injury sustained during the World Baseball Classic.
And Diaz made it a short work day in obtaining his first save, a 1-2-3 inning finished off with a strikeout of Joe.
“I don’t think there is anyone in our clubhouse who has any doubt that (Ashcraft) can be one of the best in the game,” said Bell during his post-game interview. “And more importantly, I think Graham believes that. That’s saying a lot but he is certainly capable of it. He has the competitive nature and the work ethic and he loves to pitch.”
Ashcraft was nearly untouchable his last two spring training starts and packed it in his luggage and lugged it back to Cincinnati.
“That was an outstanding start (Sunday) and he really found some momentum there at the end of spring training and carried it into the season,” Bell added. “He couldn’t wait for the season to start. He just attacked, threw strikes and his slider got better as the game wore on. It made for tough at bats, just like we saw in spring training.”
The Reds are in love wjth the long ball. Two of their runs came on solo home run by Jason Vosler and TJ Friedl. The Reds hit six home runs during the three-game series by six different players.
Vosler, a J.V. standing in for another J.V., Joey Votto, while Votto is on rehab assignment, homered in the second to give the Reds a 1-0 lead.
Jonathan India, who contributed two hits, scored a run in the third on Tyler Stephenson’s infield hit. And Friedl’s first 2023 hit was a home run in the fifth.
“Definitely good to get a series win and I feel like I’m swinging it good,” said Vosler. “I was feeling good in the (batting) cage today. I got in a 2-and-1 count and I was thinking he (pitcher Vince Velasquez) would go with an off-speed pitch. Luckily enough, I was right and I was able to get it out of here.”
Vosler is grateful for his opportunity to be Votto’s stand-in and hopes his production keeps him with the team when Votto returns.
“The coaching staff has been amazing,” he said. “In my short period of time here, I’ve gotten a lot better in all facets of the game. That’s thanks to the coaching staff. Not just the opportunity here, but just the opportunity to grow.”
Friedl was 0 for 9 with four strikeouts to start the season when he launched his home run that pushed the Reds lead from 2-1 to 3-1.
“That was a pretty ideal way to break out of that,” said Friedl. “I just have to stick to my approach. I got a good fastball to hit and put a good swing on it.”
And for certain, the Reds hope that Ashcraft sticks to whatever approach he is taking.