By Hal McCoy
The Cincinnati Reds suddenly find themselves one game away from being Strangers in Paradise, first place in the National League Central.
With their seventh straight win and second straight victory at Minute Maid Park on Saturday afternoon, 10-3 against the defending World Series champion Houston Astros, the Reds (36-35) have gone from last to nearly first — second place, one half game behind the Milwaukee Brewers (36-34), who beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-4 on Saturday.
The Reds passed the Pirates (34-35) and moved into second in the division for the first time since they were 3-2 on April 4, also the last time the Reds had a winning record until their victory Saturday.
After starting the season 7-15, they were Paradise Lost, last place, where most so-called experts expected them to be after they lost 100 games last season.
If ever there was a statement game, the Reds shouted it from the roof of Minute Maid Park with a whomping beatdown of the befuddled Astros.
Ten runs. Thirteen hits. It left 40,136 fans in Minute Maid stunned and silent all afternoon.
Jonathan India got the Reds rocking in the first inning with a two-run home run, his ninth, and they never looked back.
“We’re just a sneaky good team,” said india to the media after Friday’s 2-1 win.
There was nothing sneaky about Cincinnati’s win Saturday. It was total destruction by a team that constructs runs every way imaginable.
The only thing sneaky about the Reds Saturday was the way starting pitcher Hunter Greene performed. How many games would the Reds win when Greene doesn’t have a strikeout for three innings and strikes out only three in six innings? Well, they did it at least once and that was Saturday.
The Astros helped out immensely, swinging early nearly every at bat as if to say, “You aren’t going to strike us out.”
Greene’s first strikeout came with one out in the fourth inning, but his lack of strikeouts and the Astros putting the ball in play early in at bats helped keep Greene’s pitch count down.
He pitched six innings and gave up two runs, five hits, walked four and struck out three. In enabled him to win for the second time this season.
And just call the Reds The Big Road Machine. After starting the season 1-9 on the road, they are 19-17 on the road and their seven-game winnins streak has been put together on the road — two in St. Louis, three in Kansas City and two in Houston.
After India’s two-run homer in the first, Houston, losers in eight of its last 11, scored a run in the second. Greene issued a one-out walk to Corey Julks, a double to Jose Altuve and a sacrifice fly by Kyle Tucker.
Greene walked Alex Bregman and he stole second, putting runners on third and second with two outs. Greene wriggled out of it by getting a ground ball Jose Abreu to ground out.
The Reds went old-school to steal a run in the fourth. Will Benson, who produced three hits and drove in three runs, led the inning with a triple. Catcher Curt Casali put down a perfect safety squeeze to lift the Reds to a 3-1 lead.
Matt McLain singled to open the fifth. He was on the run when India grounded to third, eliminating a double play. He took third on Elly De La Cruz’s grounder to short. Both Spencer Steer and Tyler Stephenson walked, filling the bases and two runs scored n Benson’s single to make it 5-1.
Early this season, Benson was a lost soul, hitting far below the .200 Mendoza Line with a large basket full of strikeouts. He was sent down to Class AAA Louisville for a refresher course. He made the right adjustments and has been a force since his recall. With his three hits and two walks, he is 8 for his last 18.
In Greene’s last three starts, manager David Bell put veteran catcher Casali behind the plate and Greene gave up no home runs. . .until the sixth inning Saturday when Yainer Diaz connected on a solo shot.
In three starts before Casali became his catcher, Greene gave up seven home runs. And the Reds are 10-3 in games started by Casali.
The Reds still led, 5-2, after Diaz’s homer and they made it 6-2 in the seventh on Elly De La Cruz’s double, steal of third and Tyler Stephenson’s single.
Ian Gibaut replaced Green in the seventh and gave up a home run to Jose Altuve, his fourth hit of the day to go with two doubles and a single.He had four of Houston’s seven hit.
Just to put an exclamation point. of things, the Reds ripped off four more runs in the ninth on a two-run single by pinch-hitter Kevin Newman and a two-run triple by Matt McLain.
Star of the game could be passed up and down the dugout.
**TJ Friedl walked three times, all on full counts, and scored a run.
**Matt McLain had two hits, drove in two and scored two.
**Jonathan India had the two-run first-inning home run.
**Elly De La Cruz had two hits, stole a base and scored a run.
**Spencer Steer had two hits and scored two runs.
**Tyler Stephenson had two hits and drove in a run.
**Will Benson had three hits, two walks, drove in two runs and scored one.
Nick Senzel was left out at 0 for 5 and Casali was 0 for 3, but contributed the squeeze bunt for a run and guided Greene through six innings with loving care.