PITTSBURGH – There were a few Cincinnati Reds players sitting in the dugout a few minutes after Wilmer Difo scored the game-winning run with two outs in the ninth inning Wednesday, perhaps still trying to process what happened.
For the game, it was a defensive letdown in the ninth inning. Difo reached base when left fielder Max Schrock misjudged a fly ball and then he scored from second base on a putout at first.
What it means for the season is the Reds are on the verge of a collapse after their 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. They've lost four straight games and 12 of their last 16. They've dropped seven consecutive series, the club's longest streak in the last four seasons.
It’s premature to say the Reds have no shot to make the playoffs, but losing a series to a last-place team doesn’t make their path any easier. The St. Louis Cardinals swept the New York Mets on Wednesday for their fifth consecutive win and have a 1½-game lead over the Reds in the wild-card race.
"It sucked the way that ended," Kyle Farmer said. "Honestly, there are no words to describe it."
The Reds can't afford to lose games against 91-loss teams and this was one they gave away. Difo hit a fly ball down the left-field line with one out in the ninth inning and Schrock overran it. Difo was credited with a double when the ball bounced into the stands.
"There's no excuses for that," Schrock said. "That was a ball that I should catch 100 out of 100 times. No excuses."
With Difo on second base, the Reds opted to intentionally walk Bryan Reynolds. That brought up Colin Moran, who hit a ground ball down the first-base line. Joey Votto slid to stop it, but he bobbled the ball. Votto hurried a throw to pitcher Mychal Givens for the out at first base while Difo sprinted around third base.
Givens had his back to Difo when he caught Votto's throw, took two steps and then fired a throw to the plate. Difo beat the throw, sliding past catcher Tucker Barnhart's tag for the game-winning run in a stunning walk-off win in front of 9,320 fans.
"That’s a tough play for Joey and for Givens," said Farmer, who hit a game-tying homer in the eighth inning. "He’s covering the bag and he’s so far away from home plate and his back is turned. Surprised he ran on that, especially, was there one out? Kudos to him for making the aggressive play."
The Pirates, eliminated from the postseason on Sept. 8, beat the Reds in back-to-back games. It’s the first time the Pirates have won a series against a team with a winning record since taking two of three against the Cardinals from Aug. 20-22.
"After a game like tonight, it was really quiet," Farmer said of the clubhouse mood. "Guys are down as we should be. We’re down, for sure. The clubhouse is down, but we just have to keep being positive.
"The tide will turn."
The third inning served as a microcosm for how the Reds have fallen in the wild-card race over the last three weeks.
Jonathan India was robbed of a homer for the first out of the inning and Nick Castellanos was thrown out at the plate by several steps for the final out. In the bottom half of the inning, starting pitcher Vladimir Gutierrez coughed up a two-run lead.
All the opportunities were there, and it amounted to nothing. The soft schedule that was supposed to save the Reds has turned into a curse.
"We’re still in the fight and we can still come back and get that wild-card spot," Farmer said. "We just have to keep grinding."
India slugged a fastball into left field, but Ben Gamel made a small leap and reached his glove over the six-foot-high wall to take away a homer. India stared into left field for a few moments, knowing he was a couple of feet away from adding to the team’s 2-0 lead.
Castellanos hit a two-out single to center in the third inning. Votto, the next batter, hit a blooper down the left-field line. Gamel was unable to corral the ball on a sliding attempt, but few people seemed sure the ball dropped fair until it was signaled by third-base umpire Sam Holbrook as Gamel slid into the wall in foul territory.
Reds third-base coach J.R. House, perhaps thinking the ball was further away from Gamel than it was, waved Castellanos around third as Gamel threw the ball toward the infield from his back. Castellanos was out by at least three steps.
"Things aren't really going our way," Farmer said. "Guys didn't know if it was fair or foul, the umpire called it fair, and we made an aggressive play and it didn't pan out. Earlier in the season that panned out for us, you're usually safe. It's really not rolling for us right now. Hopefully, the baseball gods will help us out."
The Pirates nearly hit for the cycle against Gutierrez in the bottom of the third. Pitcher Mitch Keller hit a leadoff single. Yoshi Tsutsugo hit a one-out RBI double into the left-center gap. Bryan Reynolds followed with an RBI triple down the right-field line. Another run scored on a sacrifice fly.
Gutierrez lasted only 3 2/3 innings, failing to record a strikeout against the 19 batters he faced.
"If anything, just maybe missing a little bit of life on that fastball just to put hitters away," Reds manager David Bell said. "We’re definitely managing his workload at this point. We're nearing the end and we hope to be able to support him through that, keep him strong and hope he can find that again."
The Reds fought back from their two-run deficit. India hit a sacrifice fly in the seventh inning and Farmer lined a first-pitch slider into the left-field seats with two outs in the eighth inning.
Finally, it felt like they had regained their footing. Then a ninth-inning disaster put their season on life support.
"It was a tough way to lose," Bell said.