What was once recently the Cincinnati Reds speeding toward the top of the National League Central standings has been thrown into reverse.
The Milwaukee Brewers reached double digits in runs by the fourth inning Saturday in Great American Ball Park en route to a 10-8 narrow escape.
Down 9-1 in the third inning and 10-3 in the fourth, the Reds displayed the fire and scrappiness they’ve shown all season.
They chip, chip, chipped away until they scrambled back to within 10-8 with one out in the ninth inning with the bases loaded … one solid hit away from tying it.
But Milwaukee closer Devin Williams struck out Kevin Newman and Matt McLain on a pitch in the dirt to end it.
Not even nine stolen bases, one shy of the club record, could assist the Reds in retrieving what seemed like an early lost cause.
After winning five straight to draw within three games of the division-leading Brewers, the Reds have lost three straight and toppled five games behind.
The much-struggling Graham Ashcraft acted as if the pitching mound was a foreign country he had never visited. He faced 25 Brewers and 10 scored.
Most of his pitches had catcher Curt Casali diving left and right or excavating pitches out of the dirt. And when he did find the strike zone, the light-hitting Brewers put the ball in play with bullet velocity.
The Brewers came into the game occupying the bottom portion of most offensive categories — runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage.
But they unloaded on Ashcraft, whose earned run average rose like an on-field thermometer, which read 91 degrees when the game began, from 5.55 before the game to 6.64.
It was obvious from the start that things are still amiss with Ashcraft. He went to 3-and-2 on the first three batters in the first inning. He walked leadoff hitter Christian Yelich on a full count. Yelich stole second and scored on a full-count single by Rowdy Tellez.
The Reds drew even in the bottom of the first on a walk to McLain and his stolen base, a single by Jake Fraley and a run-producing infield single by Spencer Steer.
It all came unraveled on Ashcraft in the second and third like a cat playing with a ball of string.
The Brewers scored three in the second, with the bottom three batters in the order scoring the three runs. They reached on two singles and a walk. Number nine hitter Blake Perkins produced his first MLB RBI with a single. Christian Yelich singled home a run and the third scored on a fielder’s choice.
Ashcraft’s day reached a 10 on the ugly meter in the third, a five-spot highlighted by a grand slam by Perkins, his first MLB home run that put the Brewers up 9-1.
Whether it was a vote of confidence, or he didn’t want to destroy his bullpen, manager David Bell sent Ashcraft back out for the fourth. He gave up a solo home run to Willson Contreras.
The final line on Ashcraft: Four innings, 10 runs, nine hits, four walks, one strikeout.
The Reds, though, did not quit … they never seem to quit.
They scored two in the third on McClain’s triple and Fraley’s home run, cutting Milwaukee’s lead to 10-3.
Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell removed starter Colin Rea after six innings and his replacement, Trevor Megill, did a Graham Ashcraft imitation.
The Reds scored three runs on one hit. Megill loaded the bases by giving the bottom three of Cincinnati’s order free passage to first base. He walked Stuart Fairchild and Will Benson, then hit Casali with a pitch.
Newman hit a sacrifice fly. Jonathan India had the inning’s only hit, a two-run single and the Reds were within four at 10-6.
While the Reds were trying to stage a miraculous comeback, relief pitcher Eduardo Salazar put a muzzle on Milwaukee’s bats. He produced three strong scoreless innings on one hit with no walks and a strikeout.
The Reds put two runners on with two outs in the eighth on singles by Newman and McLain, but India popped out.
The Brewers started Jake Cousins in the ninth inning, leading, 10-6.
He opened the inning by walking Fraley on four pitches and wild pitched him to second. Steer singled, scoring Fraley. When Nick Senzel singled, Counsell brought in Williams, one of baseball’s best closers.
He quickly struck out pinch-hitter Tyler Stephenson. He walked Will Benson on a full count, filling the bases.
Bell sent up pinch-hitter T.J. Hopkins, called up from Louisville just before the game. He was making his first MLB appearance and coaxed a full-count walk from Williams, forcing in run to make it 10-8.
Williams stopped the gusher with his strikeouts of Newman and McClain.
Fraley was on base four times with two singles, a homer and a walk and stole three bases. McLain had two hits and scored three runs and Steer had two hits and two RBI.
But the wide early deficit was a mountain too high.