There are other rookies who garner more attention than Vladimir Gutierrez, including a couple of his teammates.
It’s understandable. Gutierrez isn’t the flashiest pitcher. His fastball doesn't touch triple digits. No jaw-dropping breaking ball. He didn’t show up at the top of the best prospects lists after signing with the Reds in 2016 out of Cuba.
What makes Gutierrez different is his fearlessness in the strike zone. He can command four pitches and he’s not afraid to challenge hitters.
Everything that makes Gutierrez great was on display Sunday in arguably the best start of his career. He led the Reds to a 3-1 victory over the Miami Marlins to complete a four-game sweep at Great American Ball in front of a crowd of 17,797.
The Reds took a one-game lead over the San Diego Padres for the final National League wild-card spot after the Padres lost to the Philadelphia Phillies.
"Just the ability to, honestly, throw whatever he wants at any time," catcher Tyler Stephenson said. "He’s unpredictable. You can’t fall into a rhythm up at the plate."
It was the first time the Reds swept the Marlins in a four-game series since 1999. They completed their homestand against the Chicago Cubs and Marlins with a 5-2 record.
Gutierrez permitted three hits and one run in seven innings, completing seven innings for the third time in his career. He struck out a career-high eight batters, punching out at least one batter with all four of his pitches (fastball, curveball, slider and changeup).
There was an at-bat in the seventh inning that showed his level of confidence despite ending in a walk. He fell into a 3-0 count against Marlins cleanup hitter Jesús Sánchez. He shook off Stephenson and threw back-to-back curveballs for strikes.
"To have that much confidence in each and every pitch," Mike Moustakas said, "it’s pretty cool to watch."
Gutierrez, a 25-year-old right-hander, was suspended at this time last year after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. He called it a huge bombshell, crediting his wife and family for helping him move on from it.
He gained confidence in the offseason, dominating in the Reds' fall instructional league last year and working with a personal pitching coach throughout the winter. He still had to complete his 80-game suspension after spring training this year, but he was a different pitcher.
After throwing six shutout innings in his debut at Triple-A Louisville on May 6, he told Jorge Merlos, the Reds' Spanish interpreter, he would see him on May 15. He was off by 13 days, but he's shown he belonged in the big leagues.
"I’ve seen him get more and more comfortable, more confident," Reds manager David Bell said. "And what's really fun to watch is that he’s so athletic in the way of his delivery."
Gutierrez was on a different level of strike-throwing Sunday. His first 14 pitches were all strikes. He didn't throw his 10th ball of the afternoon until the fifth inning, 50 pitches into his outing.
He threw a first-pitch strike to 16 of the first 21 batters he faced. He finished his seven innings in 89 pitches, throwing 65 strikes.
"I think ever since I started pitching, I've always had that confidence," Gutierrez said, according to Merlos. "Maybe not in the confidence of locating them very well, but I've always had confidence in my pitches to throw them whenever I wanted."
Gutierrez has pitched at least six innings and allowed two or fewer runs in each of his last six starts. He is the first Reds rookie pitcher with such a stretch since Gary Nolan in 1967, according to Bally Sports.
The Reds gave Gutierrez just enough run support. Moustakas was hitless in his previous 26 at-bats when he lined a 91-mph slider into the right-field seats for a go-ahead homer in the fifth inning. It was his fifth home run of the season and his first since May 12.
The homer ended a 0-for-33 stretch from Reds third basemen. It even earned extra fireworks, a small batch delayed until the middle of the next at-bat.
"When you’re not playing well and you’re not getting hits you’re always looking to see what you’re doing wrong whether it’s pitch selection or the swing itself," Moustakas said. "I just went back to who I was and what I’m capable of doing, which is getting a good pitch to hit and hitting it hard."
Marlins starter Sandy Alcantara had retired nine of his last 10 batters before Moustakas’ homer. The lone exception was an infield single by Nick Castellanos to open the fourth inning and he was erased from the basepaths when Kyle Farmer lined into a double play.
Alcantara did a lot of things well, reaching 100-mph with his fastball and mixing it with a sharp changeup to strike out a career-high 11 batters in seven innings. Alcantara surrendered only four hits. The Reds just made him pay for a couple of elevated pitches.
Tyler Naquin, batting leadoff for the first time since May 1, launched Alcantara’s sixth pitch of the afternoon past the wall in right-center for his third leadoff homer of the season.
"Their starter, he has really great stuff," Bell said. "To get him on the first at-bat before he has a chance to settle in – it was one run, but it did change the game."
In the eighth inning, with a one-run lead, Naquin added another homer off Marlins reliever Anthony Bass. It was the fourth multi-homer game of his career.
Naquin has 21 hits, 13 runs and nine RBI in his last 12 games. With Jesse Winker sidelined until likely September with an intercostal strain, Naquin has provided a huge lift at the top of the lineup.
Next up, following Monday's off day, is a three-game series in Milwaukee. It's the Reds’ final series of the season against the division-leading Brewers.
"Three huge games," Stephenson said. "Obviously, they’re ahead of us. If we can go out there and sweep them, that’s going to make things really interesting. They’re huge. We know that. They know that."