When the Cincinnati Reds played the San Diego Padres in the middle of June, Reds manager David Bell had a full bench in the top of the ninth inning. In that game, he could have picked any pinch-hitter, and he called on rookie catcher Tyler Stephenson.
On the next at-bat, Bell trusted another rookie in second baseman Jonathan India. Since that game, when the Reds took the lead in the ninth and then lost on a walk-off homer, the two rookies have been two of the most reliable hitters on the Reds offense.
With India and Stephenson batting back-to-back at the top of the order on Sunday against the Washington Nationals, they led the Reds to a 9-2 win in front of a crowd of 21,328 fans at Great American Ball Park.
"This game is really hard," Stephenson said. "For us to come in and do what we do, it’s been fun. We’ve put in a lot of work, both of us. It’s been fun to be with one another during this ride... Hopefully we have many more years ahead of us.”
In the bottom of the fifth inning on Sunday, India led off the inning with a double, and Stephenson gave the Reds the lead with a two-run homer.
After he hit seventh and eighth in the order for most of the first two months of the season, India moved up to the leadoff spot at the end of May. With his double on Sunday, the Rookie of the Year frontrunner became the eighth rookie in MLB history with 32 doubles, 20 homers and 10 stolen bases.
On Sunday, India booted a ground ball at second base in the top of the fifth inning. When he led off the bottom of the inning, he hit a line drive double down the left field line.
"That's the mentality, that's what makes Jonathan who he is," Reds manager David Bell said. "That's what's going to allow him to keep getting better as a player. It's a very, very competitive nature."
Stephenson, who leads qualifying National League rookies in batting average, has hit in the top half of the order whenever he has been in the lineup over the last two months. This season, Stephenson is on pace to become the 17th player in Reds history to catch at least 70 games and post an OPS above .780.
In the sixth inning, Stephenson added a double to pick up his third hit of the game, and he finished a triple short of the cycle.
"He flat out rakes," Reds starter Tyler Mahle said. "He has been awesome. And to be able to do it without playing every day is even more impressive."
The Reds haven’t had a rookie duo in the top half of their order as effective as India and Stephenson since Joey Votto and Jay Bruce were Rookie of the Year candidates in 2008. Thirteen years later, India and Stephenson have become a duo that the Reds expect to have in their lineup for a while.
Reds starting pitcher Tyler Mahle has pitched much better on the road than at home this season, but in his last home start, he had one of his best games of the year. Against the Nationals, Mahle didn’t allow an earned run over six innings.
This year, Mahle entered spring training with a guaranteed spot in the Reds starting rotation for the first time in his five-year career. Mahle responded with a career year. He recorded his 200th strikeout on Sunday and became the fourth Reds pitcher over the last 10 years to strike out 200 batters in a season.
"What’s the most meaningful is, I’ve got one more to go, but I’ve made all my starts and thrown more innings than I have in the last few years," Mahle said. "That’s what gave me the ability to get 200 strikeouts."
Mahle’s biggest adjustment heading into the season was improving his fastball and locating it higher in the zone. Mahle has recorded more than 60% of his strikeouts with his fastball this season, and he leaned on that pitch to get out of a jam in the third inning.
With two runners in scoring position and no outs, Mahle got a strikeout with three fastballs. Then he picked up another strikeout with his fastball. On the last pitch of the inning, he got the final out with a fastball that resulted in a soft pop-up.
For the second time this season, Mahle pitched at least six innings at home without allowing an earned run. He had six strikeouts on 105 pitches to lead the Reds to a series win.
"All these games are important," Bell said. "We're just going to play this out as hard as we can and see what happens. That's how it felt today, and that's how it's going to be the rest of the way."