By Hal McCoy
Just call the Cincinnati baseball franchise The Relentless Reds.
Suddenly, after sweeping three games this weekend from the woebegotten Chicago Cubs, the Reds find themselves in third place in the National League Central and are taking dead aim at the second place Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Reds completed the sweep Sunday afternoon in Wrigley Field with an 8-5 win, their first sweep in the Windy City in a decade (August, 2013). In the three games the Reds scored 25 runs and sprayed 45 hits around The Friendly Confines.
The degree of difficulty takes an upward turn for the Reds, three straight opponents with winning records.
After taking Memorial Day off, the Reds open a three-game series in Fenway Park Tuesday night against the Boston Red Sox, then four at home against the Milwaukee Brewers and three against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The victory Sunday was highlighted by four more hits by scorching-hot rooke Matt McLain, raising his average to .380. Kevin Newman reached base five straight times with three walks and two singles. And Spencer Steer contributed a two-run home run.
Reds starter Graham Ashcraft, much-troubled in his previous four starts (seven or more runs in three of those strarts), righted himself. He pitched five innings and gave up three runs on five hits and was credited with the win, leveling his record at 3-3.
All three runs against Ashcraft came on one swing of the bat bvy Patrick Wisdom in the second inning. With two outs and two on, Ashcraft had Wisdome 1-and-2, then fell to 3-and-2, and Wisdom drove one 424 feet halfway up the left field bleahers that tied the game, 3-3. Wisdom hit a second home run, a two-run blast in the eighth off Kevin Herget, but the Reds were in command, 8-3, at the time.
Chicago starter Drew Smyly took the mound with a 5-and-1 record and a 2.93 earned run average. In his previou three starts against high-level teams, the New York Mets, Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins, Smyly pitched 17 innings and gave up just five runs and 13 hits.
But Smyly’s only loss before Sunday was a horrendous outing against the Reds in Great American Ball Park in early April — seven runs and nine hits in 4 2/3 innings.
And the Reds took him to task again Sunday — five runs ane seven hits in 4 2/3 innings.
Why have the Cubs lost 11 of their last 14 and crash landed in last place? So many ways and Sunday was a microcosm.
—In four of the first five innings, they put their leadoff man on base and only once did they score. They were 2 for 10 with runners in scoring position and stranded eight.
—The first two Cubs singled in the fourth and never budged as the next three went strikeout, strikeout, ground ball.
—They loaded the bases with one out in the sixth against Lucas Sims and the next two went pop-up, ground ball.
—The Reds fifth inning said it all for the calamitous Cubs.
Matt McLain opened with a single, his third of his four hits. Smyly had him picked off first, but McLain broke for second and stole it when first baseman Trey Mancini’s throw was weak and wide.
Smyly tried to pick McLain off second and threw the ball into center field, moving McLain to third.
Spencer Steer lifted a pop foul and as catcher Yan Gomes was set to catch it Mancini ran into him and Gomes dropped it.
That forced Smyly to make a bunch more pitches before Steer popped out on the ninth pitch. He fouled off six pitches, four straight on a full count.
Smyly then walked Tyler Stephenson on four pitches, ending Smyly’s day.
Jeremiah Estrada replaced Smyly and pinch-hitter TJ Friedl doubled home McLain to break a 3-3 tie. Estrada then walked Nick Senzel to fill the bases and walked Kevin Newman on a full count to force in another run.
—The Cubs bullpen is a mess and the Reds took full advantage pulling away after Smyly left in a 3-3 game. Estrada permitted two runners inherited from Smyly to score.
Steer provided the breathing room with his two-run homer in the eighth that pushed the Reds’ lead from 5-3 to 7-3.
In 14 innings during the series, Chicago’s bullpen gave up 10 runs and 21 hits. By contrast, Cincinnati’s bullpen gave up three runs and eight hits over 11 2/3 innings.
Alexis Diaz, the strikeout machine, recorded his 12th save by strikingj out the side in the ninth.