Atlanta Braves center fielder Guillermo Heredia was prepared to run through a wall to beat the Cincinnati Reds on Friday.
Heredia, sprinting straight back on a scorched Jesse Winker line drive in the eighth inning, made a running grab on the warning track to prevent an extra-base hit before crashing into the center-field fence. Heredia was down for about a minute, the wind knocked out after his elbow extended into his chest.
The catch loomed large after the next two Reds batters, Nick Castellanos and Tyler Stephenson, hit a pair of singles. The Reds couldn’t drive either of them in when Joey Votto grounded into a double play and they were handed a 3-2 loss at Great American Ball Park in front of 30,231 fans, their biggest crowd of the season.
"Their center fielder had an unbelievable game and in some ways won that thing," Reds manager David Bell said. "It was pretty fun, not being on our side, but just watching him play."
When Winker barreled the eighth-inning cutter, Braves reliever A.J. Minter dropped his head in frustration. The ball left Winker’s bat at 106 mph, but Heredia stunned the crowd with his catch in a one-run game. Bell thought it was a sure double. Minter reacted with a fist pump.
The Reds received three shutout innings from their bullpen and watched Eugenio Suárez make a game-changing defensive play, but they just couldn’t create enough offense. The Reds went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.
The wind was blowing in from right field and it held up several potential homers on the warning track. Winker had another long fly ball that died on the warning track in center in the sixth inning.
"We scored two runs but I really liked the at-bats," Bell said. "Thought we made good contact and (Braves starter Drew) Smyly was good, too. All in all, it was a loss and we didn’t score a lot of runs, but we still like where we are offensively."
Jonathan India manufactured a run in the sixth inning when he hit a leadoff single, advanced to second on a flyout to center, stole third and scored on a double from Stephenson. Suárez added a towering solo homer to center field to open the seventh inning, his 16th home run of the season.
Suárez still isn't hitting like the way everyone knows he can, but he does have an RBI in nine of his last 12 games.
“It’s getting there," Suárez said. "Definitely, I feel better. I am seeing the ball better. Even if I don’t have the results, my average and all of that stuff, I feel good. I keep grinding. I never give up. I just do my best.”
Scoring two runs, however, typically isn't enough to survive a game at GABP.
Vladimir Gutierrez was mostly solid in his sixth big-league start, but he surrendered one run in each of his final three innings. Freddie Freeman hit a two-out, ground-rule double in the sixth inning – Ronald Acuña Jr. stole second base on the pitch beforehand, allowing him to score on the ground-rule double – and Dansby Swanson hit a two-out homer in the sixth.
When Gutierrez returned to the mound for the seventh inning, Heredia drilled a solo homer to center on his second pitch. Heredia had a homer, a double and a game-saving catch.
"The pitcher that doesn’t give up a home run doesn’t play the game," Gutierrez said, according to team interpreter Jorge Merlos. "I was just trying to execute a good pitch there, try to battle (Heredia) and get him out on a strikeout. That ball stayed in the zone and that’s what happened."
Gutierrez continued to attack hitters, as he did in all his previous starts, throwing a first-pitch strike to 18 of the 26 batters he faced. He permitted three runs on six hits and two walks. All three run-producing hits came against his fastball.
Suárez saved at least one run in the fourth inning, potentially two runs, with arguably his finest defensive play of the season. With two runners in scoring position and two outs, William Contreras pulled a ground ball down the third-base line.
Suárez dove to his right and snared the ball as his body fell into foul territory. From his right knee, he rifled a 135-foot throw across the diamond. Votto stretched at first base, catching the throw before it bounced for the inning-ending out to keep the game scoreless.
Gutierrez smiled and gave Suárez a high-five. Fellow infielders Jonathan India and Kyle Farmer met Suárez around the pitcher's mound to congratulate him. Everyone else met Suárez at the dugout stairs.
"That one was a tough hop," Suárez said.
"When I saw Suarez make that play, I was like, ‘wow, we’ve got a chance tonight,'" Gutierrez said. "Unfortunately, it didn’t come out our way, but at the moment, that was a big play and I thought we had a good chance of winning that game after that."
Momentum seemed to be on the Reds' side with the energy of the crowd and their runs in the late innings, but there was Heredia, stealing the game as he collided with the wall.