PITTSBURGH (AP) — The hangover from being officially eliminated from the playoffs last week threatened to blunt the significant strides the Cincinnati Reds made in 2021.
One big gut check by rookie pitcher Reiver Sanmartin and one last big swing from Joey Votto instead sent the Reds into the offseason with something akin to momentum.
Sanmartin wriggled out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam with minimal damage in the first inning, Votto capped off a resurgent campaign by blasting his 36th home run and the Reds topped Pittsburgh 6-3 on Sunday.
Votto’s three-run shot off Cody Ponce (0-6) in the fifth helped Cincinnati snap a four-game losing streak as the Reds finished over .500 (83-79) over the course of a 162-game season for the first time since 2013.
The Reds were in playoff position in late August but saw their hopes of playing beyond Oct. 3 officially end last Tuesday with a loss to the Chicago White Sox. Three more losses followed heading into the finale.
The lingering emotional hangover vanished thanks to a solid performance by the 25-year-old Sanmartin and a finishing flourish from the 38-year-old Votto.
“To put ourselves in the position that we did, every single guy on our team should be very proud of that,” Reds manager David Bell said. “We have a lot to look forward to. A lot to build on.”
Votto’s shot gave the veteran first baseman 99 RBIs on the season, his highest total since 2017. Aristides Aquino added his 10th home run for the Reds, who spoiled Pittsburgh’s last chance to earn a series sweep.
“To get a win on the last day and do it the way we did it, a lot of individual efforts, a lot of guys that have great seasons, and were able to finish strong ... was just really impressive,” Bell said.
The Pirates capped off their third straight last-place finish in the NL Central by falling to 0-16 this season when having an opportunity to win every game of a series. Pittsburgh’s 61-101 mark is the franchise’s worst since 2010.
Pirates shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz hit his first major-league home run in the ninth a day after having two hits in his big-league debut on Saturday night.
“This kid’s got some severe leverage and talent,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “It’s really nice to get a chance to look at him for two days.”
Pittsburgh starter Mitch Keller allowed one run in three innings. The 25-year-old remains a bit of an enigma three seasons into his career. Once considered one of the team’s top pitching prospects, Keller went 5-11 with a 6.17 ERA.
The Pirates are still in the early stages of a top-to-bottom makeover. While there have been signs of progress at the minor-league level and Shelton praised the organization’s culture shift, the major-league product remains underwhelming.
Pittsburgh scored the fewest runs (610) and hit the fewest home runs (124) in the majors by considerable margins. The pitching staff was one of three teams — fellow cellar-dwellers Arizona and Baltimore were the others — to post a team ERA north of 5.00.
While the Pirates were basically out of contention by late spring, the Reds found themselves in playoff position in late August before a 14-22 swoon over the final six weeks pushed them out of the postseason mix.
Despite the slide and the letdown that came after being officially eliminated from the playoffs on Tuesday, Cincinnati ended with a flourish by sending 10 batters to the plate in the fifth to break open a tie game.
Jonathan India reached after getting hit by a pitch with one out. Max Shrock followed with a double to right field that led to a bizarre sequence the ended with Shelton’s third ejection of the season.
India slid into second base thinking Shrock had just hit a single, then popped up and ran to third. Second-base umpire Randy Rosenberg ruled India out for failing to re-touch second base before advancing. The play was overturned on replay and Shelton raced out to voice his displeasure before getting tossed.
“You cannot argue replay, but you can ask for an explanation,” Shelton said. “I asked for the explanation, didn’t really like it. And because you can’t argue replay, I got ejected.”
Aquino followed by singling home India. Aquino and Shrock then trotted home after Votto’s shot to the seats in right field finished off a remarkable comeback season for the 15-year veteran.
Votto hit .266 with 36 homers and 99 RBIs a year after batting a career-worst .226 during the COVID-19 pandemic-shortened season.