MIAMI – Facing left-handed pitching has been an issue for the Cincinnati Reds all season and that’ll be a test for them this week as they try to grow their lead in the wild-card race.
The Reds are scheduled to face a left-handed starting pitcher in four of their next five games, managing only one hit against Miami Marlins lefty Jesús Luzardo in six innings Sunday.
The lack of offense spoiled a solid start from Tyler Mahle in a 2-1 loss to the Marlins at loanDepot park in front of 11,019 fans and a disagreement with the strike zone led to some fiery emotions. Eugenio Suárez was ejected in the seventh inning and manager David Bell was ejected in the ninth.
Joey Votto, upset with a called third strike in a full count from the first inning, paused his at-bat in the ninth inning to say some words to home-plate umpire Edwin Moscoso. After he hit a sacrifice fly, driving in the Reds' only run, he spiked his helmet and shouted a few more words from the dugout.
"For Joey, it went back to the first inning at-bat," said Bell, who was ejected for the fifth time this year. "He gets that call, it's a different inning, different at-bat and I think Joey knows that. He didn't. And I think that probably was where the real frustration stemmed."
The Reds finished their six-game road trip against Milwaukee and Miami with a 2-4 record. They hold a 1½-game lead over the San Diego Padres, who were off Sunday, with 30 games remaining.
Next up for the Reds is a three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park. The Cardinals are 3½ games behind the Reds with six games remaining between the two teams.
Was there some pressing at the plate as the Reds tried to avoid dropping a series to the Marlins?
"I did not sense pressing beyond a great effort to do everything we can to get going," Bell said. "But not to the point where pressing negatively affecting us or our at-bats. It's frustrating when you can't get something going, for sure. We talked about their pitcher Luzardo being a big reason for that today."
The Reds have a 16-12 record in games started by left-handers, but they have the National League's lowest batting average (.229), third-lowest on-base percentage (.310) and second-lowest slugging percentage (.375) against lefties. They rank first or second in all three categories against right-handers with a .257/.336/.448 slash line.
"We have, I believe, towards the fewest games versus left-handed starters on the year," Bell said. "I think that's a factor. We just haven't seen them a lot. It'd be great to get going against them. We know we're going to play big games against left-handed starters."
Luzardo was considered one of the top prospects in the sport, but he hasn’t had much success at the big-league level. He entered Sunday with an 11.12 ERA in his last 28 1/3 innings, struggling to consistently throw strikes and surrendering too many homers.
Then he faced the Reds, wore glasses instead of contacts for the first time, and transformed into the guy that looked like a star prospect.
The 23-year-old Luzardo matched a career-high with eight strikeouts in six innings. He retired 14 consecutive batters, and 18 of his last 19 batters, before hitting Votto with a pitch to begin the seventh inning.
"He just showed a good mix," Stephenson said. "He throws hard, so you have to respect the fastball. We had some pretty good swings on him and we got some opportunities to kind of put some runs together. Just didn’t really fall in our favor."
The Reds had their first two batters of the game reach base in the first inning. India, playing in his hometown, hammered a double to the left-field wall and Stephenson drew a walk. Luzardo escaped the threat by striking out Castellanos and Votto, then induced a ground ball back to the mound.
After Tyler Naquin reached on an error with one out in the second inning, the Reds didn’t have another baserunner until Votto was hit in the seventh inning.
"He got out of some innings that very well could have been a different outcome," Stephenson said. "Maybe a questionable (strike three) call for Joey, so it would have been bases loaded with one out, so who knows?"
Mahle, who has been phenomenal on the road this season, surrendered a two-run homer to Jesús Sánchez in the first inning. It was a tough at-bat for Mahle, starting with a 0-2 count before giving up a 415-foot blast on a full-count fastball. It was just the fourth time Mahle has allowed a homer in a road start, spanning 79 innings.
"I was trying to go up-and-in and left it over the plate," Mahle said.
It took an inning for Mahle to find his rhythm. He said the mound felt a little tall, so there was an adjustment period. His slider was unreliable with more movement than usual, so he essentially became a two-pitch pitcher with his fastball and splitter.
The two-pitch combo worked. Mahle completed seven innings, matching a career-high for the fifth time this season, and permitted just four hits and two walks.
No runner advanced past second base Mahle following the first inning.
"Just hate that one pitch kind of cost it," Stephenson said. "He kind of got in a rhythm as the game went on, which I think he always kind of seems to do. It’s like if you can get him through the first couple innings, you’re setting yourself up pretty good."
The Reds have a 16-11 record this month, which has put them in the driver's seat in the wild-card race. San Diego has a 9-15 record in August and the Cardinals are 14-11. St. Louis lost on a walk-off hit to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday, splitting its four-game series in Pittsburgh.
"We would have liked to, obviously, win some more games, but we still kind of control our own destiny," Stephenson said. "Tomorrow is a new day, so that’s all we can worry about right now."