Cincinnati Reds: Hamilton returns to leadoff spot after 82-game hiatus

The Reds Billy Hamilton singles against the Pirates on Tuesday, May 22, 2018, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. David Jablonski/Staff
The Reds Billy Hamilton singles against the Pirates on Tuesday, May 22, 2018, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. David Jablonski/Staff

Friday felt like Christmas in August for Billy Hamilton.

The Cincinnati center fielder received a surprise gift from interim manager Jim Riggleman when he saw his name in the leadoff slot for the first time since April 26 against Atlanta, snapping a streak of 82 consecutive starts in the ninth slot – below the pitcher. Hamilton celebrated by leading off the first inning with a single to right field, extending his hitting streak to a season-high nine games.

“I asked (Riggleman) if his hand slipped,” Hamilton said before Saturday’s second game of the series against San Francisco at Great American Ball Park. “It felt good to be back up there.”

Former manager Bryan Price began the practice of batting Hamilton ninth and interim manager Jim Riggleman kept him there as his average hovered around .200. Hamilton’s plate performance started turning around in July, when he hit .256, and it’s improved in August. He was hitting .306 for the month going into Saturday’s game, boosting his average to a season-high .236 after going 2-for-4 on Wednesday against Cleveland before losing a percentage point with Friday’s 1-for-5 effort.

He’s batting .344 (11-for-32) with a double, two runs batted in, five stolen bases and a .346 on-base percentage during his current streak.

Hamilton’s recent improvement combined with injuries that have cost the Reds contributors such as Joey Votto, Scott Schebler and Jesse Winker prompted Riggleman to promote Hamilton.

“With so many guys out of the lineup, we decided to go ahead and put him there,” Riggleman said. “We’d like to leave him there for a while. That’s where he can help the club the most.”

That’s just what Hamilton has been waiting to hear. He’s never been shy about his longing to lead off.

“That’s what I deserve,” said Hamilton, whose seven stolen bases over the Reds’ last 14 games have pushed his season total to 29, second in the National League behind Washington’s Trea Turner. “It’s what I wanted back. I’m going to keep working hard to keep that spot.”

Baby glove: Hamilton's struggles at the plate haven't affected his Gold Glove-caliber center field performance, which includes Friday's diving backhand stab of Buster Posey's sinking liner to left-center field leading off the 11thinning. That play helped preserve the 1-1 tie, setting the stage for Phillip Ervin's walkoff homer leading off the bottom of the inning.

Hamilton makes his highlight-reel plays with a glove that, to put it mildly, is well broken-in. He’s used it for six years, ever since it was given to him after several other players tried it.

“I was like, ‘Oh, great, it’s already broken in,’” he said of the glove he lovingly calls “Baby.” “It’s breaking down a little bit, but I told (assistant trainer Tomas Veras) ‘I’m going to keep restringing it.’”

Mad scientist: Catcher Tucker Barnhart handled his first career start at first base on Friday night with no problem, making every play that came his way, even Evan Longoria's popup in foul territory down the first base line. Barnhart made an over-the-shoulder catch with his back to the plate while avoiding the tarp that's rolled up and stored along the wall.

“He looked fine,” Riggleman said, leaving open the possibility of more appearances at first for Barnhart. “Things may come up that didn’t come up last night. The more things you experience, the more you get used to.”

Other experiments may be forthcoming as Riggleman and the Reds use the rest of the season to learn what players can and can’t do.

“I’d like to put some other people at shortstop,” he said, “That’s (Jose) Peraza’s job, but I’d like to see (Brandon) Dixon at shortstop or Dixon at third with (Eugenio) Suarez at shortstop. (Dilson) may get more time in the outfield.”

Herrera made his second start in left field on Saturday.

What Riggleman didn’t say was not only does exposing players to other positions help the Reds learn more about them, it could possibly make them more attractive in trades talks.

Wrap it up: The Reds are scheduled wrap up the three-game series against the Giants and the 10-day, nine-game home stand with a 1:10 p.m. game on Sunday. Cincinnati's projected starter right-hander Luis Castillo (6-10), will be making his first career appearance against San Francisco. After allowing one home run in five July starts, Castillo has been roughed up for three in his two August outings.

He’ll be opposed by left-hander Andrew Suarez (4-8), who allowed five runs – four earned – on eight hits in six innings of a 6-3 Reds win on May 16 at AT&T Park in San Francisco.