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7 takeaways from 7 straight Reds wins

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Last week reminded us how fun Reds baseball can be.

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Chicago Cubs v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

As you might have heard, the Cincinnati Reds have won seven straight games. After a win to avoid a sweep against the Pirates, the Reds have rattled off a two-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers and a four-game sweep over the NL Central rival Chicago Cubs, giving Cincinnati its longest win streak since the 2012 team won 10 straight.

I never thought the 2012 Reds and 2018 Reds would have anything in common, but here we are.

Alas, because the team played its worst baseball in the history of the franchise in April, seven straight wins still isn’t enough to dig the team out of the division’s cellar. The Reds are still four games back from the fourth-place Pittsburgh Pirates, despite the fact that the Pirates have lost six times in the same span that the Reds have won seven. Yes, things were that bad.

But they seem to be better now. The club is healthy for the first time in what feels like years, the offense is clicking the way we all thought it could this year, and the young pitchers finally, finally, have shown some signs of maybe figuring out this whole major league operation.

The Reds will lose again — maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow, maybe a week from now. But this streak will soon come to an end one way or another. That being said, it’s worth taking stock of a few things that have stuck out during the team’s seven-game win streak.

1. The players really seem to believe this team is good

Why shouldn’t they? After all, bad teams don’t normally win seven straight games. Bad teams don’t sweep the Chicago Cubs in four straight. Bad teams don’t rattle off six-run innings two days in a row. Take a look at this piece from C. Trent Rosecrans in The Athletic ($) yesterday. The quotes from guys like Eugenio Suarez, Scooter Gennett, Adam Duvall and Tucker Barnhart don’t sound like they’re coming from guys who are pessimistic about this team’s current standing. They sound like guys who just welcomed one of the best teams in the National League to Great American Ball Park, kicked their ass for four straight games, and are fired up about it. Good for them.

As that piece points out, one guy who should get some credit for the attitude in the clubhouse right now is interim manager Jim Riggleman. The team is 29-30 since Riggleman took over following a 3-15 start that led to Bryan Price’s termination, but more importantly, he seems to have won over the guys in the dugout. He has a hands-on approach with his players, and emphasizes positivity even in the toughest of times.

None of this changes the fact that the Reds should absolutely cast the widest of nets when conducting a managerial search in the offseason, making certain that they’re bringing in the best guy possible to lead this team into what is hopefully its next era of contention. Maybe Riggleman establishes himself as that guy in the coming months, maybe he doesn’t. But he’s done a fine job with the task he was given, and he should be commended for that.

2. Joey Votto can still surprise us

Look, I know Joey Votto doesn’t read Red Reporter. I know that. He is a multimillionaire professional athlete with a busy schedule, and has much better things to do than to tinker around on baseball blogs. And even if he did read baseball blogs, they would likely be much more sophisticated, scientific blogs than the ones this merry band of pranksters comes up with.

Obviously, Joey Votto doesn’t read Red Reporter. Obviously.

He doesn’t.

HOWEVER.

If there were any baseball player that would catch a whiff of someone writing about his power going out the window, and then go out and a hammer a pitch into the seats just to make that guy look silly, wouldn’t it be Joey Votto?

Last Tuesday, Wick Terrell wrote a very thoughtful, informative piece about where Joey Votto’s power had gone. At the time it was published, Votto hadn’t homered in 30 games, the longest dingerless streak of his career. Just three innings into that night’s game, he came to the plate with bases loaded and mashed a grand slam — one that jumpstarted the Reds’ offense in the second game of their seven-game streak.

It wasn’t crushed, but that’s part of the beauty of it for me. I like to imagine Votto stepping to the plate and, just to prove a point, deciding to put just the right swing on the ball to put it exactly one row out of play.

Again, Joey Votto does not read Red Reporter. Probably.

3. Anthony DeSclafani seems fine

Anthony DeSclafani is one of two Reds pitchers to start two games of the current win streak, with the other being Sal Romano. Those starts were DeSclafani’s third and fourth, respectively, since returning from a series of injuries that cost him the first two months of 2018 and all of 2017.

With that amount of time spent off the mound, some rust was to be expected, and it showed in his first start of the year on June 5. He allowed the first four batters he faced to reach base, two of which scored. He then allowed a 2-run homer in the second inning, leaving him stuck with four runs allowed in the 2018 season before he’d even recorded four outs.

Since that homer, though, he’s looked pretty DeSclafani-ish. I know this is a selective endpoint I’m choosing, but since Chris Iannetta homered with nobody out in DeSclafani’s second inning of the season, he’s allowed just six more earned runs in 21 innings pitched, which works out to a 2.57 ERA. He has also raised his season-high on innings pitched over the last two games, throwing 5.2 innings of two-run baseball against Pittsburgh before tossing 6.1 innings of two-run baseball against Chicago.

He’s allowed a few extra homers and walked a few extra batters in his first four starts of the season, but those are the sorts of things to be expected when someone hasn’t pitched in a major league game in 20 months. If this is the way DeSclafani pitches when he’s shaking off rust, Reds fans should be pretty excited for what he’ll look like when he’s fully comfortable again.

4. Tyler Mahle seems good

Tyler Mahle, on the other hand, looks as comfortable as he ever has in his short time as a member of the Cincinnati Reds rotation.

Mahle has only started one game during this win streak, but it seems wrong to write a post highlighting the things that are going right for this team without giving him a mention. Still just 23 years old, Mahle showed flashes of promise throughout the first two months of the season, but in June, he’s found another level.

Over his last four starts, Mahle holds a 1.61 ERA in 22.1 innings. He’s struck out 20 and walked 10, but more importantly, he’s allowed just two home runs in that time. For someone who gave up 13 homers in his first 11 games of the season, that’s a notable step forward.

It’s also one that we’ve sort of been waiting on. Despite Mahle’s bothersome 4.90 FIP this season, his xFIP sits at a more reasonable 4.17, suggesting that he’s had some poor luck on fly balls this season. These last few starts are a sign of what happens when that bad luck regresses back to the mean, and the results are spectacular.

Mahle’s striking out nearly a batter per inning, walking fewer batters than he did in his first trip to the big leagues, and his home run rates are normalizing. Of all the pitchers who have taken positive steps lately, Mahle seems best-suited to build on that going forward.

5. Jesse Winker is finally hitting home runs

Speaking of young Reds who have had bad luck with home runs, Jesse Winker is finally showing power again.

After starting the season with 44 games without a home run, the 24-year-old Winker has now hit five over his last 23 games, including two game-changing bombs in the last four games. In that span of 23 games, Winker is slashing a downright dreamy .283/.425/.514, with 17 walks and just 12 strikeouts.

This, like Mahle’s sudden drop in home runs allowed, didn’t come out of nowhere as much as you may think. According to Statcast, Winker has hit well enough to generate modest power numbers all season. His expected slugging (.459) is considerably higher than his actual figure (.381), and that disparity was even larger before this past week. He’s also increased his hard hit percentage more than six points from last year, and his substantially higher launch angle (14.1, up from 7.6 in 2017) suggests that he’s making the necessary adjustments to get his home run totals up.

Winker still has a ways to go as a big league defender. But he’s well on his way to being a genuinely fearsome hitter.

6. Scott Schebler seems to enjoy hitting leadoff

The Reds’ struggles with the leadoff spot in the order are well-documented, as the team has tried out several different hitters at the top spot just this season, hoping one of them will hit well enough to lock the position down.

No one in 2018 has made that case quite like Scott Schebler. He’s hit in the leadoff spot just 12 times, but his .339/.393/.571 line there says he’s thriving.

Schebler was on the bereavement list for three days this week, but came back on Sunday with a 1-for-3 performance against the Cubs that included two walks, one of which was a damn fine plate appearance to keep the line moving in the team’s monster seventh inning. It was pretty much exactly the kind of day you’d like to get from the No. 1 spot in your order.

Schebler’s an interesting choice for leadoff because he’s sort of a mix of the Reds’ other options. He runs well, but not as well as Jose Peraza or Billy Hamilton. He walks some, but not as often as Jesse Winker. And he hits for more pure power than just about anyone in the lineup. But his numbers for the season — .356 wOBA, 123 wRC+ — certainly suggest he’s a valuable contributor no matter where he is in the order. If he’s content doing that at the top of the lineup, the Reds ought to be content with it as well.

7. Baseball is weird and random and awesome

Since the turn of the century, the Reds have employed an impressive list of pitchers who perform well at the plate. Micah Owings, Mike Leake, Travis Wood, Bronson Arroyo and Michael Lorenzen have all done their share of hitting dingers, smacking balls into gaps, and generally being a tougher out than the average pitcher is when he steps to the plate.

None of those guys hit a grand slam for this team, though. No Reds pitcher since 1959 had hit a grand slam before Saturday, when Anthony DeSclafani and his .143 career batting average and zero career home runs grabbed a bat in a major league game for just the fourth time since 2016.

If the 2018 Reds’ seven-game win streak can be boiled down to a single moment, it would be that swing. Unless it’s the pinch-hit home run that Lorenzen hit the very next day. Or the seven-run seventh inning the team put together on Sunday. Or Amir Garrett striking out Anthony Rizzo on three pitches in the biggest AB of the game on Thursday. Or any one of the other helpful performances, big and small, that have built this last week for the Reds.

That home run by DeSclafani wasn’t the difference in Saturday’s win — the Reds already had enough runs to eventually win the game. But it is an example of one of the many ways things broke just right for the Reds last week. The team played its best baseball in recent memory, yes. But it also got the big breaks, and the perfectly-timed momentum swings. That’s okay, too. It’s also been a long time since those things happened.

No, the Reds aren’t back in the playoff hunt. But at long last, they’re fun. This team, with its dugout celebrations and eager, young standouts and #PitchersWhoRake, is a hell of a lot of fun. It’s healthy. It has a bullpen that is built to preserve leads and wins. It has a deep lineup. It has players who are sick, just like the rest of us, of these games not mattering.

Last week was a thrilling reminder of how much fun Reds baseball can be. And as tough as it might be to admit, I think we all needed one.