The Cincinnati Reds built a bullpen with former minor league free agents, waiver claims and an All-Star closer who has faded down the stretch. For five months and two weeks, it was just enough to keep the Reds in the playoff race.
But with the season at a breaking point, the Reds’ bullpen has crumbled. On Saturday at Great American Ball Park, the Reds coughed up a nine-run lead in an embarrassing and demoralizing 13-12 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates that likely extinguished the Reds' hopes of making the playoffs.
“It’s been an unbelievable year for us in the bullpen, but it’s been a real challenge,” Reds reliever Fernando Cruz said. “We’re really forced to pitch a lot. We’re capable of it. We work hard. We built a really good culture here. Today, we just collapsed.”
For the first time since 2004, the Reds blew a nine-run lead. And the implosion came when the Reds could least afford it. With the loss, the Reds fell 2.5 games back in the wild card race with six games remaining in the season.
Closer Alexis Díaz took the mound in a tie game in the top of the eighth inning, and the Reds needed him to be the savior for their season.
The Reds had already blown a nine-run lead. They were in the middle of their worst bullpen implosion in 20 years, and it was happening in a must-win game for the Reds in the playoff race. Approaching the game like it was Game 7 of a playoff series, Reds manager David Bell brought in his All-Star.
Díaz allowed four runs in ⅔ innings as the Pirates took a 13-9 lead. The Reds scored twice in the bottom of the eighth inning, and they brought the game-tying run to third base with one out in the bottom of the ninth. But Elly De La Cruz struck out and Jonathan India flew out to end the game.
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“I feel fine,” Díaz said via interpreter Jorge Merlos. “I’ve been going out there with the same mentality. The batters have been able to make an adjustment to my pitches. They’ve been able to fight out there as well. I’m trying to attack the same way I’ve always done. The batters, I tip my cap to them. They’ve made the adjustment.”
For the third time in three games, the Reds’ bullpen lost the Reds a game. On Wednesday, Díaz blew a save and reliever Sam Moll gave up the go-ahead run in the ninth inning. On Friday, Buck Farmer allowed two homers. On Saturday, more relievers participated in a slump that could ruin the Reds’ playoff hopes.
When the Reds took a 9-0 lead on Saturday, Great American Ball Park felt like a playoff atmosphere. TJ Friedl led off the second inning with the Reds’ first inside-the-park homer since 2012. After a single from Elly De La Cruz, he flipped his bat and pointed to the dugout. Starting pitcher Connor Phillips, who allowed three runs with nine strikeouts in five-plus innings, was slapping his mitt in the dugout to celebrate the Reds taking a 9-0 lead.
And then the rug completely got pulled out from under them. The Pirates scored five runs in the sixth inning off of Reds reliever Alex Young. Cruz didn’t record an out in the seventh inning, which led to Lucas Sims allowing a three-run double to Pirates first baseman Alfonso Rivas.
All of a sudden, the score was tied.
“I can’t deny that (this season) has been taxing,” Young said. “We’re one of the most used bullpens. It’s to the point where we still have to do our jobs. Things might not be falling our way right now. It’s tough, but we’re resilient. We’ll keep pushing forward. Everyone has each other’s backs. That keeps us in it.”
The Reds currently have nine relievers in the bullpen, and Díaz is the only established reliever. And even the Reds’ All-Star has worn down, taken a step back and lost some high-leverage chances in September.
Young has been less consistent than any Reds reliever this month. After Young returned from the injured list and struggled, Reds manager David Bell saw a nine-run game as a good chance to get Young back on track.
Instead, Young saw the Pirates start their comeback.
Young was the front office’s biggest addition to the bullpen during the offseason, and he joined the Reds on a minor league contract. In 2022, he only pitched in 25 big league games. Young had a solid start to the season, but he has now allowed multiple runs in all three of his relief appearances in September.
Cruz, who has arguably been the Reds’ best reliever recently, entered the game with the Reds up 9-6 in the seventh inning. Cruz’s splitter has been nearly unhittable down the stretch, but he’s also a 33-year-old who didn’t make his big league debut until last September. After he allowed a single, a double and a walk, Bell pulled him with no outs in the inning.
“I couldn’t do my job,” Cruz said. “I feel terrible. It was the time to give back to the team and get out of that dangerous position we were in. We weren’t able to do it. It cost us the game.”
Rivas worked a seven-pitch at-bat against Sims with the bases loaded, but he pounced on a slider that Sims left right down the middle to tie the score.
No Reds reliever has fallen off during the second half of the season as much as Díaz. He was invincible at one point of the year. Now, he looks like a 26-year-old who has never thrown this many innings in a season.
"What he has done with the innings and everything he has had to do for us, we surely wouldn't be where we're at if it wasn't for what he has done," Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson said. "They put up some quality at-bats right there. I scratched my head because of the amount of times I've seen him throw some of those pitches and guys didn't even come close to hitting it."
The Reds lead MLB in one-run wins this year, which has piled pressure on Díaz’s right shoulder all season. Since the Reds didn’t have lock-down setup relievers ahead of him in the bullpen, he had to enter several games earlier than he should have this year to try to clean up a mess for the Reds.
Díaz made his 67th relief appearance of the year on Saturday. Only one other reliever with more than 25 saves has pitched in that many games this year. The rest of the bullpen has also been pushed to its limits.
Díaz, Buck Farmer, Ian Gibaut and Sam Moll all rank in the top-25 in MLB in appearances this season. All season, Reds' starting pitchers have consistently failed to pitch more than five innings in games. With rookie starters who have never pitched this deep into a season and journeymen starters without much of a track record, the Reds haven't been getting many six-or-seven inning starts that would save the bullpen.
As a result, Reds relievers have pitched the sixth-most innings in baseball this year. The only teams ahead of them regularly use openers and rely on long relievers to pitch the bulk of the innings in games.
Have the Reds asked for too much from their bullpen this year?
“That’s a fair question,” Bell said. “For me right now, that’s not the focus. I’ll let you pick that apart. For me, the focus is on tomorrow, our players, what they’re doing and what they’re giving. I’ll leave it at that. That’s my focus. Our players. I love how they’ve handled every situation this year. They’re doing everything that they can. I’ll include our coaching staff in that. They’re giving everything they have, too.”
The Reds currently have nine relievers on the active roster. Cruz, Farmer, Derek Law and Young are veterans who spent most of last season in Triple-A. Daniel Duarte has bounced between Triple-A and MLB all year. Sims has made 63 relief appearances this year, which is well above his career-high of 47. Gibaut has 70 appearances in 2023, which is more than double his career-high. Moll and Díaz also have never pitched this much in a single season.
The Reds’ lack of investment in their entire pitching staff, including their rotation, caught up to them at the worst moment. Because the Reds only signed Luke Weaver during free agency in the offseason, the Reds lacked an experienced innings eater. As a result, relievers had to pitch between four-to-six innings in a lot of games.
The Reds' relievers have been unsung heroes of the season, but the Reds still don't have a bullpen that would match up well alongside the other teams in contention. As a result, the Reds are falling out of the playoff race.
“This bullpen has been contributing so much every game this whole season,” Díaz said. “That’s why we’re here at this moment. We’re in crunch time right now. We know we have to forget about everything that’s happened in this game and move on.”
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Reds bullpen has historic meltdown in loss to Pirates