Once upon a time, I was a hotshot recent college grad with a penthouse office on L.A.’s famed Sunset Strip. The summer before I graduated, I started working for a dot-com flush with cash – not quite Super Bowl ad-obnoxious levels, but loaded enough to plaster ads in New York City subways and fly a custom blimp over Hollywood.
In the fall, I continued working full-time while completing my degree requirements at night. I still remember how cocky I felt when I took my last final exam: “I’m already working. Why am I here?” I couldn’t finish fast enough so that I could officially turn the page on my years of being a student.
Then a funny thing happened: the dot-com went dot-bomb. Six weeks after I graduated, I found myself unemployed. This wasn’t how the story was supposed to go, I told myself. I busted my tail in high school so I could get into a good college. Then I worked hard in college – even juggling three simultaneous internships at one point – to get a good job. I did everything right. How did things end up going so wrong?
When the Reds came to town this week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my crash course in capitalism. For years, the team rebuilt, rebuilt and rebuilt some more, and after a flurry of acquisitions during the offseason, they appeared poised to finally contend. Just 12 months ago, I flew to Cincinnati and saw the Reds drop several games during Bryan Price’s final stretch as manager, including one in which Cliff Pennington pitched an inning of mop-up relief and another in which he made two errors in the same game as the starting third baseman. With Puig, Kemp, Gray, Roark, Dietrich and Iglesias now on board, surely those dog days were over, right?
As it turns out, for all of the spit and polish applied during the offseason, the Reds found ways to lose at Dodger Stadium just the same as they always do, last year’s fluke sweep notwithstanding. Monday’s loss was the textbook definition of a heartbreaker, as the team held its own against Clayton Kershaw and was locked in a 2-2 tie going into the top of the 9th. From there, facing Dodger closer Kenley Jansen, they added a run to take the lead – the first time I can recall the Reds even reaching base against Jansen, much less scoring.
When Raisel Iglesias entered the game, I couldn’t help but remember his massive 2017 meltdown during his maiden appearance at Dodger Stadium. With the Reds up 7-4, Iglesias entered the game with one out in the 8th and a man on first. After issuing three consecutive walks – the last of which came with the bases loaded – Iglesias finally threw a strike. Unfortunately, Corey Seager launched it into the bleacher seats, and just like that, the Dodgers were up 9-7 – the first time all game they’d taken the lead. Facing Jansen, the Reds then went down in order in the 9th.
When Iglesias walked the first Dodger batter on Monday night, I squirmed. Please, not again. When Joc Pedersen then hit a walk-off two-run homer to win the game – again, the only time all night the Dodgers were ahead – I was the least-surprised person in the stadium. As I’ve written previously, over the years I’ve seen the Reds lose at Dodger Stadium in every conceivable manner, but despite its familiarity to that 2017 game, this one hurt more. It was as if the Baseball Gods were saying that all of the rebuilding and the trades were for naught, and that despite the lipstick, a pig is still a pig.
Tuesday’s loss was more garden-variety, but Wednesday’s was another gut-punch. Sonny Gray was lights-out for the better part of five innings. In the sixth, however, he walked his first batter of the game to lead off the inning before striking out the next two Dodger hitters. Not wanting to face Cody Bellinger, the Reds issued an intentional walk – the right call, even with Gray rolling. Unfortunately, it backfired spectacularly, as A.J. Pollock hit Gray’s second pitch over the fence, giving the Dodgers a lead they would never yield. I’ve only seen a handful of Reds pitch better games against the Dodgers than Gray did, as his final line of just two hits and two walks (one intentional) with nine strikeouts against a loaded L.A. lineup was undeniably impressive. One pitch, though, made it all for naught.
Last month, I left Goodyear bullish on the new-look Reds’ chances, but much like my college idealism was quickly tempered, the past few weeks have been a difficult reality check. Even still, I continue to look for a silver lining. In my case, losing that job was arguably the best thing that ever happened to me, as I put my severance check to good use via a five-week backpacking trek across Europe, where I met the person who would later introduce me to my wife. That said, it’s no fun to admit that the Reds probably won’t win it all in 2019 after all, but perhaps one of the shiny new objects the team acquired in recent months will end up yielding a key piece of the next pennant-winner. For now, though, the Reds annual visit to Los Angeles was a stark reminder that no matter how close to turning the corner the team might be, there are only two places where close counts.