PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds infamously tied for last place in the National League Central last season. Or fourth place instead of fifth if you want to spin it like a top.
Both finished with a record of 62-100, leaving the impression neither team would contend this season.
However, on the afternoon of April 23 this season, it sure seemed like one of the two franchises was beginning to move forward.
The Pirates beat the Reds 2-0 at PNC Park to complete a four-game series sweep. Vince Velasquez, Colin Holderman and David Bednar combined on a four-hit shutout.
The Pirates ran their winning streak to seven games that day and were the biggest surprise in baseball at 16-7. The hot start was enough to make fans dream of a potential Buctober.
Meanwhile, it was the Reds’ sixth straight loss, dropping them to 7-15. Another 100-loss season seemed possible if not probable.
The Reds returned to Pittsburgh on Friday night and, my oh my, how things have changed.
The Reds steamrolled the Pirates 9-2 as phenom rookie shortstop Elly De La Cruz hit a two-run triple in the first inning off Johan Oviedo to set the tone for what turned out to be a rout.
The Reds improved to 61-57 with the win. While that record isn’t eye-popping, it is good enough to have them tied with the Chicago Cubs for the third National League wild card. The Reds and Cubs are 2.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.
At 52-64 and eight games out of the third wild card – with five teams ahead of them in the standings – the Pirates will need a miracle not to miss the postseason for an eighth straight year.
So, what has happened?
The simplest answer is the Pirates stopped winning. Since beginning the season 20-8, the Pirates are just 32-56 in their last 88 games.
Injuries have been part of the Pirates’ demise. Shortstop Oneil Cruz has been out since breaking his left ankle on April 9 and Velasquez and fellow starting pitcher JT Brubaker have both undergone season-ending elbow surgeries.
Another simple answer is the Reds have a crop of rookies and young players who have matured faster than most of the Pirates’ prospects, thrusting Cincinnati into the pennant race.
De La Cruz, compared to a young Mickey Mantle by Reds veteran designated hitter Joey Votto, is part of an all-rookie infield that includes first baseman Christian Encarnacion-Strand, second baseman Matt McLain and third baseman Spencer Steer.
The starting outfield all entered the season with less than one full year of major-league service time – left fielder Will Benson, center fielder TJ Friedl and right fielder Stuart Fairchild.
In Friday night’s win, Benson had three hits while De La Cruz had two hits and three RBIs and Steer added two hits and two RBIs.
The Reds also have two rookie left-handers in their rotation with Andrew Abbott and Brandon Williamson while All-Star closer Alexis Diaz is in just his second year. Abbott took a shutout into the sixth inning Friday night before giving up two runs in 5.2 innings.
“It’s just been a lot of fun,” said utility infielder Kevin Newman, who the Reds acquired from the Pirates in an offseason trade for reliever Dauri Moreta. “It’s fun to see all the young guys have so much energy and to be playing so well. You can see their confidence continuing to grow.”
The Pirates could be excused if they looked across the field and felt frustrated about the juxtaposition of the teams between April and August.
However, they might also have reason to be heartened. The Pirates do have talented young players and you don’t have to squint too much to see the foundation of a potentially good team.
The Reds are showing that a young team can contend. We’ll see if the Pirates can be the Reds of 2024.