CINCINNATI — When Derek Dietrich rounded first base following his pinch-hit three-run home run in his first at-bat in a Cincinnati Reds uniform on Thursday, he couldn’t wait to get back into the dugout and celebrate with his teammates. The record crowd of 44,049 wanted a piece of the action, too, urging Dietrich to emerge for the first curtain call of his career.
“I’m right where I want to be,” said Dietrich, a Cleveland native who delivered the decisive blow in a 5-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. “I play with a lot of energy, but I’m blessed and I’m thankful to be here.”
It was among the most anticipated Cincinnati Reds Opening Day games in recent memory, and for good reason. The offseason acquisitions of outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, starting pitchers Alex Wood, Tanner Roark and Sonny Gray, and a new coaching staff led by first-year manager David Bell led to renewed optimism after four straight 90-plus loss seasons and last-place finishes.
But Thursday’s season-setter, played before the largest regular-season crowd in Great American Ball Park history, didn’t have any heroics from Puig, who was greeted by the fans with a thundering “Puiiiiiiiig!”, went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. Kemp didn’t play.
Instead, the stars of the show on Thursday were the less-heralded acquisitions and a holdover from last year’s starting rotation.
Bell described his emotions following Thursday’s win as “a little bit of relief”.
The loss of Scooter Gennett for up to three months with a groin strain resulted in a shift in the infield. Jose Iglesias, who was signed to a minor-league deal in February, earned the starting shortstop job when Jose Peraza moved to second replacing Gennett.
Iglesias, a seven-year veteran, introduced himself to Reds fans with an RBI double in his first at-bat to make the score 1-0 in the second inning. In the seventh, he doubled again, just ahead of Dietrich’s heroics.
“That’s part of having that depth,” said Bell. “We can’t wait to get Scooter back, but we like what Jose Iglesias gives us, and Derek Dietrich is a good player off the bench.”
The additions of Wood, Roark and Gray are expected to stabilize a Reds rotation that was among the worst in baseball last season. However, on Thursday, it was one of the club’s rebuilding pieces who shined in his season debut.
Throughout his five and two-thirds innings of work, 26-year-old right hander Luis Castillo had the Pirates batters flailing. Castillo’s changeup was flawless. He mixed in the breaking ball the third time through the Pirates order. His fastball was moving in, out, and around throughout. Castillo had eight strikeouts, walked three and allowed a run and only two hits over 91 pitches.
“He’s really gone back to throwing his four-seam (fastball) a little more than he did last year,” said Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart. “He’s continuing to develop. He’s just getting innings under his belt at the major league level and learning what he needs to be successful. He’s a special guy to be around, and he’s got special stuff. When he’s mechanically right you see some weird swings.”
With 91 pitches, Castillo left the game to a loud ovation on Thursday. Bell knew he’d had enough.
“What a great game he pitched,” Bell said. “I was so happy for him. He hadn’t been to that point (in a game) other than one time in spring training. We trust our bullpen so much.”
What followed were two innings of groans and gasps as Reds fans sweated through the final frames. Jared Hughes who was among the most dependable Reds relievers last season, allowed a two-run single by Jung Ho Kang to erase Castillo’s fine work and put the Pirates ahead 2-1 in the sixth before Jose Peraza’s solo homer tied the score in the seventh.
Bell was tested in his managerial debut when Raisel Iglesias, who entered the game in the eighth inning, was unable to complete the save. After Iglesias walked two with one out, Bell got creative. Amir Garrett was brought on and he struck out Adam Frazier for the second out. Then David Hernandez replaced Garrett and walked Pablo Reyes to load the bases.
“You try to think through all the scenarios,” said Bell. “It’s so much different than spring training. David (Hernandez) just battled and battled. He competed. In the end it’s the players who do the job.”
Corey Dickerson, who homered earlier in the game, engaged in a 12-pitch war with Hernandez who tried essentially everything to get him out. Dickerson fouled off six straight pitches on a 2-2 count before grounding out weakly to Peraza at second for the final out.
“I didn’t know whether to call a knuckleball or call for an Eephus pitch,” Barnhart said. “I have 17 more gray hairs after that. It was a battle.”
Fireworks lit up the sky above the Ohio River as Reds players celebrated win number one. Bell passed his first test as manager. The Reds’ bench, a weakness in recent years, produced the biggest hits. A struggling starting rotation shined on the first day. The bullpen bent, but it didn’t break. Thursday’s win seemed like it should have been worth more than one.
“You try to trick yourself into thinking it’s just one game, but it’s not,” Bell said. “It’s important to get off to a good start — everyone says that, but for us, it is.”