By Hal McCoy
With the Minnesota Twins in town, the Cincinnati Reds faced their last opponent of the year with a winning record.
And the Reds took care of business in an emphatic way, pinning a 7-3 defeat on the Twins, the first-place occupants of the American League Central.
It was a gargantuan victory as the season dwindles away while wild card contenders play a daily game of leap frog.
Not only did the Miami Marlins lose, enabling the Reds to bypass them, but the Chicago Cubs were idle and the Reds moved into a tie with them for the coveted third wild card spot. And Arizona was idle, so the Reds slipped to within a half-game of the second wild card position.
As it has gone this month, the Reds were plagued with a lack of starting pitchers and it wasn’t announced until late Monday afternoon who it would be.
It was 22-year-old rookie Connor Phillips, summoned from Class AAA Louisville to make his third major league start.
What a start it was. Phillips gave the Reds much more than they honestly expected — seven innings of two-run, three-hit, seven-strikeout pitching.
Phillips was 0-0 after his first two starts with an 8.31 earned run average, but the Reds won both those games. This time, with his well-polished performance, he earned his first major-league victory.
Two of the three hits were harnless solo home runs and the offense more than covered the difference, led by Will Benson with three runs batted in.
The Reds scored two in the second inning, but it was narrowly much more.
Noelvi Marte put the Reds on the board with a run-scoring single and the Reds had runners on first and third.
Benson drove one to deep center, a drive penciled-in for a home run. But Twins center fielder Michael A. Taylor sprung above the wall to rob Benson.
Instead of a three-run homer, Benson had a sacrifice fly for one run batted in and a 2-0 Cincinnati lead.
The Twins cut it to 2-1 in the fourth on a leadoff home run by Royce Lewis. Fortunately for the Reds, the bases were loaded. Lewis hit four grand slams in an 18-day span recently.
Benson pushed the lead to 4-1 in the fourth. After a two-out full-count walk to Marte, Benson made sure nobody could catch this one but a fan in the stands.
He drove a 408-foot home run into the right-center seats.
Phillips gave up his second home run with one out in the seventh, a jolt by Alex Kirillof that cut Cincinnati’s lead to 4-2.
The Reds put it away in the home seventh against left-hander Dallas Keuchel with a three-run eruption.
It began with a full-count walk to Jonathan India. TJ Friedl singled and Spencer Steer singled home India.
Pinch-hitter Nick Senzel blooped a single to fill the bases and it looked as if the uprising was over when Tyler Stephenson bounced into a third to home to first double play. That left runners on third and second with two outs. But Joey Votto slashed a two-run single and the Reds led, 7-2.
It was a satisfying night for Steer, traded by the Twins to the Reds in the pitcher Tyler Mahle deal. Steer had three hits, drove in a run and scored one.
And Votto chipped in with two hits, two RBI and a run scored.
The Reds, always active with transactions, outdid themselves before Monday’s game.
Hunter Renfroe and Harrison Bader, both picked up early this month on waivers, have been non-contributers. Renfroe was designated for assignment and Bader was placed in the injured list with a groin strain.
Utility player Stuart Fairchild and relief pitcher Alex Young were activated off the COVID-19 injured list and pitcher Connor Phillips was recalled from Class AAA Louisville so he could make Monday’s start.
In addition, pitcher Graham Ashcraft is scheduled for surgery to relieve stress reaction on his right big toe and was transferred to th3 60-day injured list.