The temperature in Great American Ball Park Sunday afternoon was plus-90s with a heat index somewhat close to Dante’s Inferno.
But St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty kept the Cincinnati Reds bats pretty much encased in Greenland-like ice.
Only the heat could stop him, after five innings, and by that time the Cardinals had constructed a four-run lead against Cincinnati starter Alex Wood.
Flaherty held the Reds to one run and three hits over his five innings and the Cardinals used that pitching to post a 5-4 victory. Flaherty walked three and two were to rookie home run history-maker Aristides Aquino. Flaherty pitched him with the care he would take crossing I-75 at rush hour.
Of course, if the Reds are playing during the day it doesn’t matter if it is hotter than a burning oil depot or colder than an igloo living room. The Reds are 16-33 in the daylight hours.
And one-run games? They are 18-24.
With the loss, the Reds split the four-game series and are right back where they started, 7 1/2 games out of first place in the National League Central.
For the second straight weekend, they needed a Sunday victory to get within 5 1/2 games of first place but lost to fall back to 7 1/2. Last Sunday it was a loss to the Chicago Cubs and this week it was the Cardinals.
Reds manager David Bell remains on the upbeat, even though day games and Sunday games keep his team on the downbeat.
“We keep trying to get over that hump and today was another opportunity,” he said. “We are at a point where we are going to have to get on a roll. I really believe it can any day. It would be the best for this team and this organization just to make a strong run now.
“We’re capable of it and we aren’t sitting waiting for it to happen, we are expecting it to happen. We’re doing what it takes to make that happen, it just hasn’t happened yet.”
And time, it is a-fleeting.
Flaherty, a 23-year-old right hander drafted No. 1 by the Cardinals in 2014, has been as sturdy recently as the Gateway Arch. The Cardinals have won five of his last six starts.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati starter Alex Wood also labored through five innings but was victimized by eight hits, including a pair of home runs and a pair of doubles that led to five runs and eight hits.
The home runs are debilitating for Wood. He has given up eight in only 23 1/3 innings this season.
“The moral of my story is, I’ve gotta keep the ball in the ball park,” said Wood. “It has been a two-week spree of homers that I’ver never quite experienced like I have my first four or five starts.”
Flaherty began the game cruising on 23 straight scoreless innings, longest in the majors. In his last three starts he pitched seven scoreless innings each time.
Eugenio Suarez took care of that quickly. After missing Saturday’s game with a jammed thumb, Suarez returned to Sunday’s lineup. The first pitch he saw in the first inning was slamed over the center field wall. It was his 34th home run overall and 12th in the first inning, most in the major leagues.
The 1-0 lead survived only until the top of the third when Wood gave up a leadoff single to Tommy Edman and a one-out home run to Paul Goldschmidt. It came on a 3-1 pitch and was driven into the left field seats, his 28th homer, that gave the Cardinals a 2-1 lead.
An unearned run that began with third baseman Suarez throwing error in the fourth gave the Cardinals a 3-1 lead. Suarez air-mailed a throw over first base that put Yadier Moiina on second base. He scored on a single by Lane Thomas.
The Reds put runners on third and first with two outs in the fourth but Jose Iglesias grounded to short.
The St. Louis lead expanded to 5-1 in the fifth. Leadoff hitter Tommy Erdman banged his third straight hit, this one a deep fly ball into the left field corner that plopped into the seats for a home run.
With two outs, Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna put together back-to-back doubles and it was 5-1.
Cincinnati put together a no-hit threat in the fifth on a walk and a hit batsman with one out. Josh VanMeter flied to center and this time Suarez struck out.
A possible major eruption by the Reds in the seventh fizzled quickly against the St. Louis bullpen.
They loaded the bases with one out against Giovanny Gallegos on singles by Jose Iglesias and Kyle Farmer, plus a walk to Nick Senzel.
Andrew Miller replaced Gallegos and walked pinlch-hitter Jose Peraza (which is neary impossible to do), forcing in a run and leaving the bases loaded for Suarez.
John Gant took Miller’s spot and Suarez lined into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play, leaving the Reds in arrears, 5-2.
It was Cincinnati’s last hurrah.
On the plus side, two of the newest members of the Reds bullpen acquitted themseleves positively.
Joel Kuhnel pitched two scoreless, hitless innings with one walk. Kevin Gausman struck out all six batters he faced in the eighth and ninth innings.
Amazingly, Gausman threw 23 pitches, 19 for strikes and he pitched an immaculate ninth, nine pitches, nine strikes He is the sixth Reds pitcher to do it, the first since Drew Storen did in against the Orioles in April of 2017.
For Gausman, it was the second time in two seasons he pitched an immaculate inning.
“I did it last season against Cleveland in the seventh inning,” he said. “The first pitch probably was a ball, but he called it a strike and then I threw eight more strikes. For a pitcher, that it as good as it gets.
“One of the things coming over (from the Braves) that the Reds wanted me to focus on was my eyesights — where I’m looking and where I’m picking up the target earlier. It is definitely translating."
When Gausman finished the ninth Sunday he thought it had been 10 pitches, “
That kept the Reds in range and once again they put something together in the bottom of the ninth against St. Louis closer Carlos Martinez. And they nearly pulled it out.
Iglesias doubled, Farmer singled and took second on a wild pitch before Tucker Barnhart singled home two runs and it was 5-4 with no outs.
Senzel flied to right, pinch-hitter Brian O’Grady (just called up from Class AAA Louisville to replaced injured Joey Votto) took a called third strike.
Once again, it was up to Suarez, who stranded five after his first-inning home run. Make it six stranded. He struck out on a called checked swing.