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Why June boon or June swoon to determine October chances for Cincinnati Reds

David Bell's team went 9-18 in May to open June in last place.
David Bell's team went 9-18 in May to open June in last place.

CHICAGO – If it’s going to happen this season for the Cincinnati Reds, this is where it starts.

Chicago’s Wrigley Field, sure (that’s where all the good times started to roll last year, after all, with a three-game sweep in late May).

But more specifically, this road trip. This weeks-long stretch of games against division opponents.

This month.

Make no mistake: A June boon for the Reds or a June swoon could determine the relevance of the rest of the season for a team that barely escaped May with its roster and pride intact.

May 31, 2024; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Cincinnati Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson (37) hits an RBI single during the fourth inning against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Melissa Tamez-USA TODAY Sports
May 31, 2024; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Cincinnati Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson (37) hits an RBI single during the fourth inning against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Melissa Tamez-USA TODAY Sports

“We’ve had our share of challenges like any other team, and I feel great about how we’ve handled that,” said Reds manager David Bell, whose team got body-slammed into last place by a grueling six-week stretch against pennant contenders before eking out a winning homestand against the Padres, Dodgers and Cardinals.

“But through all of it, we like where we’re positioned,” he added. “Not in the standings, but we like where we are as a team, and we feel like we can keep getting better.

“We have our work cut out for us. But I really believe in our team’s ability to navigate that.”

May 31, 2024; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Cincinnati Reds shortstop Elly De La Cruz (44) gets the out at second but is late on the throw to first base during the third inning against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Melissa Tamez-USA TODAY Sports
May 31, 2024; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Cincinnati Reds shortstop Elly De La Cruz (44) gets the out at second but is late on the throw to first base during the third inning against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Melissa Tamez-USA TODAY Sports

If that faith is ultimately rewarded, then October starts in June for these Reds.

And if their 9-18 May didn’t assure that much, then their first 18-loss month since three of them in 2022 at least assured there’s little margin left.

And the month was only that good because the the 5-2 closing spurt, including their first one-run victory since March, 5-4 over the Cubs on Friday to open the weekend series in Chicago.

“All you can do is look ahead, progress forward and move on, and I think that’s what this team does well,” said leadoff man TJ Friedl — who might as well have been this team’s poster child for May, having returned from a broken wrist a week into the month only to land back on the IL six games later when a pitch broke his thumb.

He returned from that one Wednesday, and by Friday drove in the tack-on run in the ninth that proved the difference in the win.

“You make the most of whatever opportunities are in front of you,” he said.

June offers plenty of those, with series against all four division opponents and a total of 19 of their 27 games against division foes during the month – with three against crappy Colorado thrown into the mix this week to finish the road trip.

“We’ve just got to figure out how to bank more wins,” said team president Nick Krall, whose team has pitched well and lost enough close games that when they beat the Cubs Friday, their run differential was just minus-8 – a sign of their 10 straight losses in one-run games until then.

Friday’s win – on the strength of Santiago Espinal's first career pinch-hit home run in the seventh and Elly De La Cruz's 93-mph relay throw to the plate for the second out of the ninth – also made them 3-4 in the scant number of division games they’ve played so far this season.

May 31, 2024; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Cincinnati Reds third baseman Santiago Espinal (4) celebrates with Jonathan India (6) after hitting a two-run home run during the seventh inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Melissa Tamez-USA TODAY Sports
May 31, 2024; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Cincinnati Reds third baseman Santiago Espinal (4) celebrates with Jonathan India (6) after hitting a two-run home run during the seventh inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Melissa Tamez-USA TODAY Sports

"Baseball's weird, man," said Espinal, the former All-Star acquired from Toronto the final week of spring training. "One day you're good. The other day you're bad. That's how the season is for us so far."

Despite the near-even run differential and despite riding a 5-2 warm streak into June, here’s a look back at May – i.e., the reason they have so little margin and so much ground to make up:

  • Runs (per game) – 84 (3.1)

  • Runs allowed (per game) – 114 (4.2)

  • Rotation ERA (average IP*) – 4.18 ERA (5 1/3)

  • Bullpen ERA (saves/attempts) – 3.70 (6/7)

  • W-L in one-run games – 1-7

  • W-L in extra innings – 0-3

*-Includes “openers” in two victories against Dodgers.

“I feel like we’ve been doing a really good job of washing the day before and going into the game,” said Friday starter Graham Ashcraft, who has allowed 17 earned runs in just 24 innings over his last five starts (6.38 ERA) — a stretch that included back-to-back starts against the Diamondbacks and then the Dodgers.

He pushed back on the suggestion that the 5-2 mini run means things have turned around.

“It’s a small stretch to really tell,” he said. “I feel like we’re getting comfortable again, kind of like we were at the beginning of the season.

“If we’re not right there, we’re really close.”

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Why October starts – or ends – in June for Cincinnati Reds