by Chris Ball

In a season like this one, there is a point in time where all of the platitudes and rationalizations ring hollow because they’ve been trotted out more times than an Uncle Remus’ catfish story.

That point is drawing perilously close; losing 15 out of 18 games tends to make any explanations fall on deaf ears.

There is no shame in setting aside the catch phrases and being honest and fair about what this Reds team is: young, inexperienced, decimated by injuries, and facing spending constraints that make it extremely difficult to compete against the cash-rich legacy franchises in this league. In even the best of times when all of a teams’ players are healthy, when you play in a market like the Reds do, you need a lot of luck for a deep playoff run to happen. The margins are always razor thin, and this year you couldn’t see them with the Hubble telescope.

Could the Reds have weathered Matt McLain’s injury? Could they have found a way to compensate for Noelvi Marte’s suspension? Is there any chance they could have prepared better for losing CES and TJ Friedl for large chunks of the season? Perhaps if any of those problems had occurred individually, Cincinnati could have found a way to stay afloat through their brutal May schedule. But the cascade of injuries combined with a precipitous drop in production from nearly everyone apart from Elly De La Cruz and Tyler Stephenson was simply too much for this team to bear and they are currently buckling under the weight of it all.

No one should be more frustrated by that than the players who make up the Reds’ rotation. Hunter Greene has faced his share of negativity after signing what (by league standards) was a very modest contract. But this year he has performed very well. He, Graham Ashcraft, Nick Lodolo, and Andrew Abbott have put this team in position to win game after game, only to have the bottom erode from under the offense.

  • Hunter Greene ERA: 3.22
  • Andrew Abbott ERA: 3.06
  • Nick Lodolo ERA: 3.34

They are 15th in team ERA and yet are currently languishing in last place in the National League Central division, mostly due to the fact that they are the second worse team in terms of batting average, at .217. This has been a consistent and well known problem that has not improved since this losing trend began weeks ago. David Bell has shuffled lineups, promoted players, and shifted them around, but nothing has worked. There have been times that we’ve seen the potential to break out of this prolonged slump, and they have been brilliant to watch.

They went into Dodger Stadium on Shohei Ohtani bobble head night in front of 50,000 hostile fans and dominated one of the best teams in baseball, winning 7-2. They piled up 13 hits against the Diamondbacks that was almost like a tease of what this offense is capable of. But after both games the spark was extinguished and the well was once again bone dry. The missed opportunities began to pile up and runs became as rare as a prime steak at Jeff Ruby’s. A perfect example is Elly De La Cruz going 0 for 13 with eight strikeouts after his four-hit, four-stolen-base game Thursday against those Dodgers that so electrified Reds fans and primed them to believe this offense could finally snap out of its funk. The team as a whole failed to respond after a positive win and were unable to score for 16 consecutive innings at one stretch in the Dodgers series.

At this point the Reds are like a boxer that spends one round landing haymakers, getting the crowd into it, but then languishes for the rest of the fight taking blow after blow until the good times are but a blurry and faded memory. And watching a team lose seven consecutive series is enough to make even the best fans punch drunk.

Having realistic expectations of a team is one of the hardest things to do for a fanbase. Hope tends to spring eternal, especially when the Reds played as well as they did last year with such a promising crop of young, exciting players. What those young teams need to take the best steps forward is continuity, support, and reliability. The 2024 Reds have none of those factors, mostly through no fault of their own. Their youngest players are either hurt, suspended, or being asked to carry a major league team on their own when they are barely into their second years. Longer tenured players like Jonathan India and Alexis Diaz are regressing to the point that they are almost unplayable when they should be the ones a team count on to shepherd the team through its toughest stretches. Will Benson has taken giant steps backwards, and it has all seemed to happen at once. Spencer Steer started red hot but has seen his average crater in recent weeks. In his last 25 games he is hitting a paltry .144 and his OPS dropped from .999 to .706. As the Reds’ closer, the man sent in to shut down the best batters in must-win situations, Diaz has a 7.47 ERA, has walked 12 and hit 3 batters in just a little over 15 innings. It’s a good example of just how this team could struggle so mightily in one run games, where they are now 1-11 with 10 straight losses.

These players have had nearly 50 games to show what they can do and how they can help this team. Batting below or near .200 over that stretch, as several of our batters are (India and Benson among them) make it legitimate to question whether we have seen the true colors of what this Reds team will be? That being a baseball club that simply cannot hit with any consistency because it has such poor depth due to injuries, and who cannot compete with the playoff teams in this league on a nightly basis. The flashes of ability and the sparks of a potential run of good hitting have shown themselves, but they’ve failed to catch on for any length of time for this team to build any sort of momentum. The Reds don’t have stars at multiple positions, they have solid players who are young, and who need to work together as a unit to produce on offense and who grind out every game as they learn and improve. But it’s impossible to grow and to learn when you’re on the disabled list or you have no help from the veteran players on your team.

As frustrating as it might be to admit, it does not mean that the season is over. The Reds’ pitching and most of its bullpen can keep them in games. Hitting sometimes runs in streaks and players can get hot for stretches of time. That being said, praying that that players buck the statistical trends they’ve established over a quarter of the season isn’t necessarily a recipe for success, and it’s an excruciating way to root for a franchise. It’s hard to imagine what magical tactic David Bell could unveil that could make seasoned players and talented hitters stop taking pitches right down broadway or grounding into double plays, but fairytale turnarounds are what Major League Baseball seasons are designed for. There is no coach to fire that will magically fix the injuries that have plagued this team and bring back the players they need to supercharge the bats that have gone inexplicably silent. The 2023 and 2024 Reds have the exact same record through 46 games. The main difference being that there is no crop of young talent ready to step up and save this team. For better or worse this team is what it is going to be for the next several months.

Until they show us otherwise, we have seen what this Reds team is, and if it continues along the same lines we have been watching so far it will be a very long summer of begging for runs and lamenting as solid starting pitching (en extreme rarity for teams like the Reds) is flushed down the tubes.

The Reds can start a new chapter this week and start to chip away at the standings, though. They return home to face the Padres for three games, and those are absolutely critical because they are winnable and a chance to build at least some positivity. And they’ll need it because those same Dodgers will then come in for a series, proceeding the Reds’ first season series against division foe St. Louis.

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Christopher Ball is a longtime Loveland resident and an attorney. He graduated from Loveland High School in 2003 and was a member of the football team before going on to become a coach’s assistant at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. He has been following and rooting for the Reds and Bengals since the early 1990s and has been through the many ups and downs that fandom has wrought over the years.

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