I’ve often dreamed about a Cincinnati Reds team that actually gets off to a fast start at the beginning of the season. I dream about it because it’s so rare.
All of us remember the 3-18 disaster that started the 2018 season. The only silver lining was that Bryan Price was out as Manager. Due to that atrocious start.
And after the most dismal spring training I can ever remember was finished two weeks ago, I feared the same thing in 2021. I wasn’t concerned that the Reds had the worst record of any team in both Arizona and Florida—that didn’t matter. But I was worried about the injuries, the inactivity, the lack of innings worked by some pitchers, and a general malaise that I thought stemmed from David Bell.
But after the First Inning of Hell against the Cardinals on Opening Day, the Reds have been incredible. An offensive explosion coming off the heels of one of the worst hitting teams in Cincinnati history and the embarrassing ineptitude of not being able to score a single run in their playoff loss to Atlanta.
Fast starts are not a panacea to win the division. The Reds started off 8-0 in 1980 in a winning streak keyed by Frank Pastore’s last-minute start on Opening Day in which he pitched a 3-hit shutout. But McNamara’s Band leveled off after that and eventually lost a close race to the Houston Astros.
After winning the National League Central in 2010, the Reds started off 5-0 in 2011, yet finished below the .500 mark (79-83) in an incredibly disappointing season.
Even the 1999 Reds started off slow; They lost their first three games and were a very pedestrian-like 6-10 after 16 games. A win over San Diego got them over the .500 mark for good at 22-21 and they finished 96-67. But that slow start cost them the division and instead forced them into a 1-game playoff against the Mets in which they lost.
But there were two seasons that stand out for me in which the Reds got off to hot starts which were key for them in winning one National League pennant and another that resulted in a World Series championship.
In Sparky Anderson’s first season with the Reds, he did some bold things right after spring training.
He took a 19-year-old pitcher with little experience north with the team and Don Gullett proved he deserved it. Anderson used him out of the bullpen, picked his moments and Gullett got better and better as the season went on. He was one of the best Reds pitchers that year in the World Series.
Sparky also put Wayne Simpson on the roster and in the starting rotation. Simpson was 7-13 at Triple-A Indianapolis the year before but the Big Warrior dominated that winter in the Puerto Rican League, followed that up with an impressive spring in Tampa and was 14-3 for the Reds in 1970 before he blew out his shoulder.
Anderson platooned a pair of rookies in left field – Bernie Carbo and Hal McRae. Both were productive. Tony Perez had a blazing April, hitting 10 home runs. Jim Merritt won on Opening Day and the Reds were off and running.
After Simpson beat the Cardinals 12-5 on July 26—a game in which 1970 MVP Johnny Bench hit three home runs and knocked in seven runs off Steve Carlton—the Reds were 70-30. The NL West race was over.
Injuries to Merritt, Simpson, and Jim McGlothlin caught up with the Reds. They finished 32-30 after that blazing start. But they got to the World Series.
Lou Piniella’s team raced to a 9-0 start to start off this season. That increased to 32-12 and their best record during that year was 58-32 before they cooled off. The Reds starting rotation was solid, Jack Armstrong started the All-Star Game for the National League and Cincinnati went wire-to-wire for the first time ever. (The 1970 Reds fell to second place one day in early April but that was it.)
But that fast start was enough to hold off the Los Angeles Dodgers and after defeating Pittsburgh in the playoffs, the Reds and the Nasty Boys swept the defending champion Oakland Athletics.
I don’t expect a dominant start like those two teams by the 2021 Reds. But neither do I want a start that wipes out of the race. My confidence in David Bell is still lacking. I just haven’t been impressed. He talks a lot but says nothing.
I predicted a 76-86 record at the end of spring training. Bell was a factor in that. I was sold on Jonathan India and Tyler Stephenson but wasn’t sure they would play that much.
But I love their attitude as personified by Nick Castellanos. Loved that moment against the Cardinals that resulted in a 2-game suspension (which was a farce). Loved the attitude, the defiance, the emotion.
It reminded me of 1999. A team that was aggressive with guys like Greg Vaughn and Sean Casey.
The Big Red Machine had that inner conceit, a quiet confidence. They just went out and beat the hell out of you and knew they would do it.
But that 1999 team – and maybe this one – had a swagger to it.