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TJ Friedl has been right in the middle of the Reds' seven-game winning streak

Cincinnati Reds center fielder TJ Friedl had to trust himself.

In late May, he was attempting to return three weeks ahead of schedule from a broken thumb, and he stepped into the batter’s box at Great American Ball Park to face Reds assistant pitching coach Alon Leichman for about a dozen at-bats. Leichman was standing a few feet in front of the mound, so his pitches looked pretty close to the velocity that Friedl would see in a big league game.

After Friedl faced Leichman on May 28, he was confident that he didn’t need a rehab assignment, or even another live batting practice session before he returned from the injured list.

“My pitch selection and my timing are the two most important things to me, and they were ready,” Friedl said.

He returned to his perch at the top of the Reds’ lineup the following day, and Friedl was right about how he felt.

Friedl has been one of the main catalysts of the Reds’ seven-game winning streak, and he delivered the pivotal two-run homer in Saturday’s 4-3 win over the Chicago Cubs at Great American Ball Park. Friedl’s towering fly ball over the right field fence gave the Reds the lead in the bottom of the third inning, and he drove in another run with an RBI groundout in the fifth inning.

Friedl's three RBI game set up a dramatic finish as reliever Justin Wilson picked up his first save since 2019. Closer Alexis Díaz was unavailable to pitch, and reliever Lucas Sims allowed two runners to reach base in the top of the ninth inning. Wilson, who missed the entire 2022 and 2023 seasons due to injury, entered to try to salvage the game, and he closed the door with two consecutive outs.

With the win, the Reds jumped ahead of the Cubs up to second place in the NL Central standings.

Cincinnati Reds outfielder TJ Friedl (29) hits a 2-run home run for the lead in the third inning of the MLB game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Saturday, June 8, 2024.
Cincinnati Reds outfielder TJ Friedl (29) hits a 2-run home run for the lead in the third inning of the MLB game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Saturday, June 8, 2024.

The biggest similarity between this year’s midsummer winning streak and last year’s midsummer winning streak is that a different player is leading the Reds to a win every night. Nick Lodolo, Elly De La Cruz, Jeimer Candelario, Frankie Montas, Jonathan India, Spencer Steer, Will Benson and Tyler Stephenson have all had their moments.

Saturday was Friedl’s turn.

“He’s a big spark and a huge part of this lineup,” said Reds third baseman Jeimer Candelario, who hit a first inning home run on Saturday. “He has a lot of energy. He’s always on base. He has quality at-bats and plays good defense. We’re blessed to have him in the lineup all the time.”

Cincinnati Reds outfielder TJ Friedl (29) gestures as he rounds the bases after hitting a 2-run home run giving the reds the lead in the third inning of the MLB game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Saturday, June 8, 2024.
Cincinnati Reds outfielder TJ Friedl (29) gestures as he rounds the bases after hitting a 2-run home run giving the reds the lead in the third inning of the MLB game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Saturday, June 8, 2024.

Having Friedl back has changed the complexion of the Reds’ lineup. For the first time this season, they have a consistent leadoff hitter and a dynamic defender in center field. His return has also taken some pressure off the rest of the lineup.

Jacob Hurtubise moved from the leadoff spot to seventh in the order. There are more runners on base for the middle of the Reds’ lineup, and there’s less pressure on left-handed outfielders like Fraley and Benson. Friedl technically replaced the spot that Mike Ford held in the Reds' lineup, and Friedl’s return gave the Reds a big upgrade.

Initially, when Friedl broke his thumb in early May, it didn’t look like he’d be able to return until the middle of June. But when a follow-up exam in late May showed how much the fracture was healing, Friedl was able to start his ramp-up process.

As long as he was pain free, he could keep progressing.

“I built up from soft toss to flips to batting practice to the velocity machine to live at-bats against Alon,” Friedl said. “That progression gave me peace of mind because there was no pain. It was more of a pain factor than anything. If there was no pain, then I wasn’t worried at all.”

There wasn’t any pain, and the Reds activated Friedl on May 29. In 10 games since then, Friedl has nine hits, seven walks, three homers and 11 RBI, and the Reds have an 8-2 record.

“He feels like he’s back in midseason (form) all in with our team,” Reds manager David Bell said. “That’s not easy. He has found a way to do it. I’m watching him close because he didn’t have a normal build up. Everything has seemed to (click). His body, the way he’s moving and the timing have been good.”

Cincinnati Reds outfielder TJ Friedl (29) greets Cincinnati Reds second baseman Jonathan India (6) after hitting a 2-run home run in the third inning of the MLB game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Saturday, June 8, 2024.
Cincinnati Reds outfielder TJ Friedl (29) greets Cincinnati Reds second baseman Jonathan India (6) after hitting a 2-run home run in the third inning of the MLB game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Saturday, June 8, 2024.

Last year, Friedl grew from a player that the Reds viewed as potential fourth outfielder into a big part of the core of the team. He was one of the most effective two-way center fielders in MLB last season, and Friedl also became a pivotal piece in the Reds’ clubhouse.

He’s known as the “loud guy” who picks up his teammates with his energy level. Even when he was out for the first five weeks of the season with a broken wrist and out for a few more weeks with a broken thumb this year, Friedl made an impact.

As he watched his teammates from the dugout, he’d stand on the top step of the dugout and help coach the outfielders when they were playing defense. When Hurtubise got called up, Friedl helped show the rookie the ropes.

Meanwhile, Friedl was doing everything from running sprints to playing catch without a glove to taking one-handed swings to try to return to the lineup as soon as possible. Everyone knew how important it would be to get him back in the fold.

“He’s a big part of this team, and you see it in so many different ways,” Bell said. “It’s not always a big hit. Tonight, it was a big hit. There’s a lot that you see on the field and a lot that you don’t see. Missing TJ was a big deal. It’s great to have him back.”

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: TJ Friedl's return helped set up the Reds' seven-game winning streak