Cincinnati Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson only remembers celebrating with emotion twice on a baseball field. The first was a walk-off home run in Low-A baseball, one of his first big hits as a professional baseball player.
That night, Stephenson hit a walk-off single as the Reds beat the San Diego Padres at Great American Ball Park. Before that game, the Reds had a 39-40 record and had lost nine of their last 13 games. After, the Reds are 30-17.
“It was all about the emotions of the game, for us to come back the way we did in the ninth,” Stephenson said last week. “We fed off the energy at the park. I’m not a very emotional guy, but I went kind of crazy after I got the hit. It takes a lot for me to show that kind of emotion.”
Entering Tuesday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Reds are in the playoff picture with a one-game lead over the Padres for the second wild-card spot. But on July 1, the Reds season was on the brink.
At the time, the Reds had an eight-game deficit in the NL Central and a 8.5 game deficit to the Padres in the NL Wild Card race. The Reds played San Diego seven times in a two-week span, and the Padres won each of the first six matchups.
“I remember at their place we were playing really well,” Stephenson said. “We just couldn’t close the games out, and I feel like we played really good baseball. They just kind of put some runs together.”
The first time the Reds played the Padres in 2021, on June 17, Cincinnati made its most impressive comeback of the season. Facing All-Star closer Mark Melancon in the top of the ninth inning, Stephenson hit a game-tying single in the ninth. Then second baseman Jonathan India hit a go-ahead homer on the very next pitch.
“If we would have held onto that, that would have been one of my favorite memories ever,” Stephenson said.
But the Reds blew the save in the bottom of the ninth, and then the Padres won the last three games of the series. San Diego came to Great American Ball Park for a rematch against the Reds at the end of June, and the Padres won two more close games.
In the series opener, the Reds got the tying run into scoring position and lost 5-4. In the next game, Reds reliever Josh Osich allowed a go-ahead grand slam in the fifth inning of a shortened six-inning game.
The series finale against the Padres wasn’t called a “must-win” within the Reds dugout, but it was Cincinnati’s final chance to prove it could beat one of the hottest teams in MLB at the time.
“We were playing really good baseball, and we didn’t let it drain on us,” Reds shortstop Kyle Farmer said. “We didn’t let that momentum of losing impact the next day. Just to show we can beat these guys, we knew (it could be) a great momentum change for us.”
Reds ace Luis Castillo got the start on July 1, and he opened the game with four no-hit innings. The Reds took an early 2-0 lead, and it looked like nothing could stop Castillo’s momentum.
Then there was a rain delay, and Castillo had to wait in the clubhouse for about an hour.
Castillo stayed in the game and allowed three runs in 6 ⅓ innings. With two outs in the top of the eighth inning, the Reds nearly got out of the inning when San Diego first baseman Eric Hosmer hit a routine ground ball to third base. But Reds infielder Alejo Lopez made a throwing error, and the Padres took the lead.
San Diego brought Melancon into the game with a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth. At the time, Melancon had a 1.80 ERA.
With one out and no one on base, Farmer hit a cutter over the center field fence. Farmer tied the game, and he later called it one of his two favorite moments of the season.
“Confidence wise, it was nice to do that and then to have a comeback win like that,” Farmer said. “It kept people wanting more.”
The Reds got two runners on base, and San Diego intentionally walked Reds right fielder Nick Castellanos. The Padres chose to face Stephenson, who went up to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded in a tie game.
Reds first baseman Joey Votto went into the on-deck circle to watch Stephenson hit. Since the bases were loaded in a tie game with two outs, there wasn’t a chance Votto would hit in the ninth inning. He still crouched in the on-deck circle without a bat or a helmet just to get a closer look at the rookie.
When Stephenson singled to right field, Votto pointed both of his fingers into the air. Stephenson flipped his bat, flexed and shouted. The entire Reds dugout sprinted onto the field to swarm Stephenson. Nearly everyone on the team, including Votto and manager David Bell, gave Stephenson a hug.
“That might be No. 1 moment in my career just with the emotions of the game,” Stephenson said. “That was the first time I got to experience something with the fans. We were winning most of the game, there was pressure to come back in the ninth off one of the best closers in baseball. It was incredible.”
According to Farmer, as the Reds celebrated the win in the clubhouse, first baseman Joey Votto walked up to Farmer and Stephenson. Votto looked them in the eye and told them, “You just saved our season.”
Farmer doesn’t remember how he responded, but he remembers how he felt.
“(That’s) right we did.”