After negotiating a 3-3 record against two last-place teams on the west coast, Oakland and San Francisco, the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday night began what might be the most decisive 11 games of the season, an 11-step program.
During that run, they play the best-of-the-best in the National League — three at home against the Chicago Cubs, three at home against the Los Angele Dodgers, two on the road at Milwaukee and three on the road at Chicago.
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At the end of that stretch it should be close to clear whether the Reds are contenders or pretenders.
Step One Tuesday night was a step backward as the Reds got a face full of Chicago Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks.
Hendricks held the Reds to one run and three hits and drove in two runs for himself with a double, leading the Cubs to a 3-1 victory in Great American Ball Park.
Hendricks came into the game with a .069 batting average with no RBIs.
On the mound he gave up a home run to Joey Votto and two other hits. After the third hit, a pinch-hit single by Josh VanMeter in the fifth, Hendricks retired the next 10 Reds in a row until he walked Nick Senzel to open the ninth and was replaced by Kyle Ryan.
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Ryan did his part, retiring Votto on a 3-and-1 pitch fly ball to left. Steve Cishek replace Ryan and broke Eugenio Suarez’s bat on a pop to short took care of Jesse Winker on a ground ball to end it.
The first-place Cubs came to town after winning eight of 10 at home over St. Louis, Miami and Milwaukee and are 9-0-1 in their last 10 series.
“It is important for us to do well,” said manager David Bell. “And it’s a great challenge based on the fact that it has been a process for us to get to this date.
“From my seat, I really like where we are, so it will be a challenge to see how that translates against really good competition,” he added.
It didn’t translate at all positively on this night.
Suarez, the Reds’ most productive entity so far this season, knows the importance of putting both spiked shoes forward over the next couple of weeks.
“It is really important for everybody here on this club,” he said. “The most important game is the first game. If you win the first game, we have a chance to win the series. Everybody knows the Cubs are real hot right now, but we play good, too.”
The Reds got bit by analytics in the second inning. With two outs and nobody on, the Reds put four defenders in the outfield and nobody on the left side of the infield against left handed Daniel Descalso.
He took the bait. He pushed a bunt up the third base line for an easy hit and it led to two runs. Albert Almora Jr. singled. That brought up Hendricks, so the outfield played shallow. Kendricks beat that, too, line a ball over center fielder Nick Senzel’s head, a two-run double and a 2-0 Cubs lead.
“It really a good bunt and he didn’t have much of a chance on it,” said Bell. “It was a good play that led to a couple of runs. A lot of times, with two outs, we’ll give guys the bunt and he took advantage of it.”
Said Reds pitcher Tanner Roark, who scrambled off the mound to field the bunt and make a throw, a wild throw, “I was contemplating letting it go foul but it would have dropped dead there. I like to make those plays but my throw was a little off.”
Of the game-deciding double by opposing pitcher Hendricks, Roark said, “It was a slider I didn’t execute very well. I have to execute my pitch better and not just say, ‘That’s the pitcher up there,’ and not throw a just-get-it-over slider.
“It was not a good pitch and you don’t want that guys to beat you and that’s what happened, so it’s on me,” he added.
Votto, fighting slump-itis, crushed a one-out home run in the fourth inning. Before the home run, he was batting .119 in May that including a 0 for 14 and a 0 for 12.
The Cubs quickly retrieved that run in the fifth on a leadoff double to Kris Bryant, a single by Javier Baez and a sacrifice fly by Willson Contreras to give the Cubs a 3-1 lead.
The Reds put two on via singles in the fifth, but two outstanding defensive plays prevented any scoring. Derek Dietrich drove one to deep center on which Albert Almora Jr. leaped high against the wall to snag. And second baseman Daneil Descalso went to his knees in short right field to stop Tucker Barnhart’s bid for a run-scoring single and threw him out from his knees.