By Hal McCoy
The Cincinnati Reds applied the air brakes to a four-game losing streak Sunday afternoon, 4-2, over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It was the final home game of the 2023 regular season and perhaps the last game in GABP for Joey Votto.
In an emotional post-game interview with Bally Sports piped into the stands, Votto told the fans to keep the faith, that playoff hopes remain alive, although by a sliver.
While the Reds won, both the Chicago Cubs and Miami Marlins took care of business, so the Reds remain 2 1/2 games behind the Cubs and 1 1/2 games behind the Marlins with only five games remaining.
When Votto came to bat in the second inning, the crowd of 31,191 gave him a nearly two-minute standing ovations while chanting, “Joey, Joey, Joey.” He doffed his batting helmet twice before stepping into the batter’s box. Even the opposing Pirates applauded and cheered in their dugout, a first-class reaction.
He was 0 for 2 with a pair of strikeouts when he came to bat in the eighth, perhaps his last in GABP, and singled to center.
Manager David Bell sent in a pinch-runner and Votto ran to the dugout. The crowd demanded a curtain call and Votto emerged, saluting the adoring throng.
“It was a good win today,” Votto told the crowd after the game. “Thank you for the support. I’m speechless. I’m speechless. I don’t expect that sort of thing.
“For you to stop me in my tracks, stop the game. You almost had me crying,” he said. “I almost cried. Y’know, like, there’s no crying in baseball. That moment was really special to me.”
Then Votto got to the crux of his mission in what could be his final year. The team owns an option on his contract for next season at $20 million or a $7 million buyout.
“This was a good game and that’s what we’re here for, to give you that,” he said. “We’re going to fight to the very end this season. This team is tenacious, this team is tenacious. I can’t tell you how badly this team wants to win for you. Five more games to go and we’re going to try to give it to you.”
And the team needed the tenacity Votto spoke about on Sunday afternoon.
For five innings against Pittsburgh starter Quinn Priester, they not only did not have a hit, they hadn’t hit a ball out of the infield.
Cincinnati starter Brandon Williamson held the Pirates to one hit through four innings, but gave up a leadoff home run to Jack Suwinski and a run-scoring single to Jason Delay in the fifth and the Reds were down, 2-0.
Both leadoff hitter and number two hitter TJ Friedl walked their first two times but nothing came of the free passes.
India broke the no-hit spell with a single to left field to open the sixth and Friedl belted his 17th home run to tie it, 2-2.
It stayed 2-2 until India came to bat in the seventh with two outs and nobody on. He doubled to left and Friedl did it again, this time a run-scoring single to give the Reds a 3-2 lead.
Christian Encarnacion-Strand gave the bullpen a bit more cushion with his 11th home run, a one-out rip to left field in the eighth.
The Reds lost two of three to the Pirates, but it wasn’t Friedl’s fault. In the three-game series he was on base 11 times out of 13 plate appearances.
He was 6 for 8 with five walks, three home runs, two doubles, six RBI, four runs scored and two stolen bases.
And for once the bullpen held serve after Williamson departed with two on and no outs in the fifth. Buck Farmer came on to record a strikeout and an inning-ending double play.
Farmer gave up a walk and a single to begin the sixth. Sam Moll came to his rescue with a strikeout and a double play hit into by Liover Peguero, who was 0 for 7 in the series with four strikeouts, a double play hit into and four defensive lapses at shortstop.
Bell showed extreme confidence in and copassion for closer Alexis Diaz, bringing him in for the eighth inning. On Saturday, Diaz surrendered four runs and five hits in one-third of an inning in a 13-12 loss.
And he didn’t make it easy Sunday by walking two batters with the Reds in front, 3-2. But he struck out Henry Davis to thwart the threat.
Ian Gibaut got the call to close up shop and he went 1-2-3 for this third save.
The Reds take Monday off, then hit the road for two games in Cleveland Tuesday and Wednesday, then close the season with a three-game series next weekend in St. Louis.