CINCINNATI - There’s a certain symbolism and reward attached to being the starting pitcher on Opening Day, perhaps more so in Cincinnati, where the first game of the season carries more significance than in most other major league towns.
But Homer Bailey already represents so much more to the Cincinnati Reds organization. He’s a former No. 1 draft choice and a player they invested heavily in four years ago when he signed a six-year, $105 million contract, only to miss the better part of three seasons following multiple surgeries.
Bailey was really good on Friday afternoon against the Washington Nationals, although Max Scherzer was even better as the Reds were shut out, 2-0. Bailey allowed one run on four hits. He walked three and struck out three over six innings and 104 pitches.
“He didn’t give up a lot of hard contact,” manager Bryan Price said. “It’s the first time he has started a season healthy since 2014. Heck of a first start, hopefully a sign of things to come.”
Over the next six months, the Reds need more of the same from Bailey to help support a young rotation and improved bullpen. They need innings and production if they have any hope of salvaging the final two years of Bailey’s controversial deal that mostly has been a disappointment.
The Reds need a full season from the 31-year-old right-hander for the first time since 2013. They need Bailey to, at minimum, produce results indicative of his baseball card.
Rain postponed this year’s Opening Day game by one day. Bailey endured a much longer wait after three surgeries delayed his first career start in a season opener in Cincinnati for the first five seasons and $56 million of his six-year contract.
On Friday at chilly Great American Ball Park, wriggling out of a bases-loaded jam in the sixth inning to complete his outing. Bailey had solid command of his fastball, a decent curve and, most importantly, he felt as strong physically as he has in four-plus years.
Bailey lamented taking the loss on Friday, but as he said from Goodyear, Arizona after being named the Opening Day starter: “It beats still having stitches in your arm.”
Bailey turns 32 in May. He has made just 26 starts the past three years, including the 18 he made last season, going 6-9 with a 6.43 ERA. He posted a 7.50 ERA in five spring training starts. But those numbers aren’t Price’s main metrics for evaluating Bailey’s production this season.
“It’s not going to show up in wins and losses and ERA,” Price said. “it’s going to show up in innings pitched. You get back to that point where Homer’s throwing 190 plus, 200 plus innings, that’s a sign of a good year regardless of wins and losses, hits per innings pitched. Boy, that would be a shot in the arm.”
Frankly, the Reds don’t need any more shots in Bailey’s arm.
Bailey has surpassed 200 innings twice in his career, in 2012 and 2013. He was 27 years old that last time he reached that threshold
He went 13-10 with a 3.68 ERA in 2012 and 11-12 in 2013 with a career-best 3.49 ERA. He totaled a combined 417 innings over those two seasons, which precipitated the rich contract he agreed to on February 20, 2014.
The Reds had reached the postseason in three of four seasons prior to Bailey signing his contract and won a pair of Central Division titles. Investing long-term in a former No. 1 draft choice with two career no-hitters made some sense at the time. Now, the club is rebuilding, mostly around a corps of young arms.
Bailey once represented the Reds’ future, but what followed was three surgeries: right forearm in 2014, right elbow in 2015, and again on the right elbow to remove bone spurs last year. He finally returned to the mound last season, making 18 starts. Bailey ended a regular season on his own terms and enjoyed a healthy offseason and spring training for the first time in five years.
“I was confident I would get through this (spring) healthy,” Bailey said. “It’s my 14th or 15th spring training, so I know how to pace myself to get through these games. They don’t mean a whole lot aside from what you want to accomplish.”
Bailey worked hard on his curveball this spring, a pitch that was slow to progress after the surgeries because it put more pressure on his elbow, resulting in more irritation. He didn’t throw many curves on Friday, but the pitch was there when he needed it. It is a critical fourth pitch for Bailey, who isn’t going to overpower anyone.
“It’s something I haven’t been able to throw for the past couple of years,” said Bailey. “We threw some in some really big counts and it really did well for us. To have that fourth pitch to be a weapon is hopefully going to be a big deal for us down the road.”
With projected starters Anthony DeSclafani and Brandon Finnegan on the disabled list to begin the season, the Reds’ rotation is comprised of Bailey and four pitchers who have a combined 46 major league starts. Bailey now is the veteran anchor. He, along with Joey Votto, also represent 46 percent of the Reds’ player payroll this season.
Friday’s start was a significant step in Bailey’s comeback, but the journey is far from completed. Bailey isn’t known for his eloquent prose, but upon being named the Reds’ Opening Day starter, the La Grange, Texas native summed up the significance about as well as anyone could.
“If you climb Mt. Everest, nobody talks about the first step,” Bailey said. “They talk about getting to the top.”