What a difference a year makes.
Twelve months ago, I nearly scrapped my annual spring training pilgrimage to Goodyear. As I wrote at the time, I was underwhelmed by the Reds’ moves during the 2017-18 offseason and questioned the wisdom of spending a dozen hours driving to and from Arizona to see games that didn’t count, especially when the ongoing rebuild had no end in sight.
This year, however, I couldn’t wait to return to Arizona to witness the new-look Reds in person. Living in Los Angeles, I’ve seen Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp play numerous times – I still shudder at the memory of Puig hitting a walk-off home run in extra innings to beat the Reds during his rookie season – but I was still extremely excited at the prospect of seeing the pair dressed in red (and green, as it turned out).
Five days before I hit the road, I happened to catch part of a televised game between the Reds and the Diamondbacks, during which recent acquisition Tanner Roark pitched three sharp innings to start the game. It was fun to realize that the next time Roark took the mound, I’d be in the crowd.
Roark did indeed serve as the starting pitcher for the Reds’ sold-out March 15 game in Goodyear against the Dodgers, apparently just the third time in the ballpark’s history that all tickets were spoken for. As it turns out, Dodger fans travel well, as far more people in attendance wore blue than red. (After two decades of enduring lonesome Reds fandom at Dodger Stadium, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to once again feel outnumbered.)
On the bright side, Roark pitched even better than he did five days earlier, striking out eight and yielding just one hit over five innings. The Reds offense, meanwhile, fared marginally better, and the team clung to a 1-0 lead as the game entered the 8th. The wheels then came off with a vengeance, though, as with one out and a man on first, Reds reliever Anthony Bass walked back-to-back Dodger hitters to load the bases. The next batter singled, and the Dodgers took a 2-1 lead.
Brandon Finnegan – trying to pitch his way back into contention for a roster spot – then entered the game, and things quickly went from bad to worse. A single made it 3-1 before a walk loaded the bases once again. From there, Finnegan walked in another run before giving up a grand slam, and the writing on the wall seemed to turn from chalk to permanent ink. Final score: Los Angeles 8, Cincinnati 1. (Finnegan was indeed assigned to minor league camp a few days later.)
The following day, I arrived at the Reds’ practice complex bright and early, but their usual 9:30ish start time was delayed by a meet-and-greet with corporate sponsors. As a result, I didn’t get to see much of anything that morning, as gates for that day’s game opened at 11:30 and I wanted to arrive early enough to snag one of 2,000 Eugenio Suarez bobbleheads that were being given away.
(Before the previous night’s game, however, I was able to catch a few minutes’ worth of defensive drills on one of the back fields, in which all of the Reds infielders – starters, backups and others fighting for a roster spot – worked on fielding grounders. It’s always fun to be able to see big leaguers practicing the same kinds of things that my son’s little league team does, albeit far more efficiently, accurately and impressively.)
With bobblehead secured, I “borrowed” an unused front-row seat next to the tarp along the third base line to watch the Reds battle the Rangers. Starter Anthony DeSclafani was nearly as lights-out as Roark was the night before, giving up just two hits over five innings while striking out seven. Considering the state of the rotation in recent years, it was great to see impressive back-to-back starts.
With the exception of Kyle Farmer, who started at second against the Dodgers and entered the game against the Rangers as a backup catcher, none of the Reds starters from the prior night’s game made repeat appearances. Connor Joe and Christian Colon, however, saw action in all three games I attended. (Colon was cut soon after, while Joe was since traded to the Giants on March 21.)
Against the Dodgers, it struck me that the starting outfield of Kemp, Puig and Nick Senzel was completely different from last year’s. The starting outfield against the Rangers, meanwhile, featured three familiar faces in Jesse Winker, Scott Schebler and Philip Ervin, the latter two of whom are having tremendous camps as of this writing. Having read about Ervin’s spring power surge, it was exciting to watch him smoke a three-run homer in person. It was also fun to witness the Michael Lorenzen grand experiment, as he entered the game not as a reliever, but as a backup outfielder. (Although he missed a diving catch attempt, he singled in his lone at-bat.)
On the downside, Raisel Iglesias didn’t look especially sharp during his inning of relief, as he gave up back-to-back extra-base hits that shrunk the Reds’ lead to three. Jared Hughes, Wandy Peralta and Matt Wisler didn’t let the Rangers get any closer over the next three innings, however, and the Reds triumphed, 5-2. (Even though wins and losses don’t matter during spring training, given the choice, I’d always opt for the former over the latter.)
My final game this spring saw the Reds take on the Indians, the other team that trains in Goodyear. (Cincinnati was the designated home team for the St. Patrick’s Day matchup, which saw the Reds sporting shamrock green.) With the exception of Curt Casali getting the nod over Tucker Barnhart (who started the previous day’s game), the starting lineup was loaded, with Scooter Gennett, Joey Votto, Kemp, Suarez, Puig, Senzel and Jose Peraza occupying the first through seventh spots in the batting order. Even with Corey Kluber on the mound for Cleveland, the prospect of a high-scoring game seemed promising.
The Reds didn’t disappoint. Although Kluber kept the offense in check his first time through the order, business picked up in the fourth when Votto walked, Kemp singled and Suarez lofted a fly ball that Cleveland CF Leonys Martin appeared to lose in the sun, loading the bases for Puig. One pitch later, the Reds suddenly had four runs on the board. Puig would homer again the following inning, but his defense made it clear that he’ll be a double-edged sword. Early in the game, he and Senzel had a miscommunication that led a ball to drop right between them. Later, after hustling to run down a pop-up to shallow right, he missed the catch in spectacularly embarrassing fashion, an error that led to two unearned runs.
Still, the Reds were ahead 9-5 heading into the 9th, when Jesus Reyes came to the mound. He only retired one of the first seven batters he faced, however, and the Indians tied the game. The Reds then went down in order in the bottom half of the inning, and the final score was a 9-9 draw – the third straight time, oddly enough, that a game between the two teams didn’t have a winner.
From Goodyear To A Good Year?
During the drive back to L.A., I reflected on how different it felt to watch the Reds this spring. Even ignoring the sellout against the Dodgers, Goodyear Ballpark was more crowded than I’ve seen it in recent years. The turnouts at the practice fields were larger than usual as well. Apparently, I’m not the only one who’s optimistic about the team’s new additions and/or chances this year.
On that note, it’s one thing to get excited reading about the Reds’ offseason acquisitions on sites like this one. It’s another level of excitement entirely, however, watching those players mow down the two-time defending NL champs and smash grand slams off of two-time Cy Young winners – two emphatic exclamation points that, at least for me, marked the official end of the rebuild.
As with my previous trips to Goodyear, getting to see the Reds in action with my own eyes officially marked the end of the long, cold winter and the beginning of a new, as-yet-unwritten chapter filled with what-ifs, why-nots and other similarly tantalizing propositions. This year, however, those postseason fantasies seem far more realistic than in recent seasons – and to that end, as I left spring training, I found myself thinking not of next March, but of October.