Billy Hamilton stealing bases, spotlight

With apologies to Jay Bruce, who certainly had a very impressive 3-game series in Houston, Billy Hamilton has been the engine that has sparked the Cincinnati Reds as they continue to move closer to clinching another playoff berth.

We’ll get to Bruce in a moment, but Billy Hamilton’s recent play has removed any question as to whether he should be selected for the Reds’ postseason roster. There is no decision to be made now, as no reasonable human could possibly even think about leaving him at home while the team tries to capture a world championship.

Billy Hamilton

Hamiltion made his Major League debut on September 3 against the Cardinals, entering a scoreless game as a pinch-runner in the 7th inning after Ryan Ludwick singled. Hamilton promptly stole second base off Yadier Molina and then scored on a Todd Frazier double. It would be the only run of the game as the Reds won 1-0.

The next day, Hamilton again entered as a pinch-runner after a Ryan Ludwick single, this time in the bottom of the 14th inning with the Reds trailing by a run. Again, Hamilton stole second base off Molina and then scored on a Zack Cozart single to keep the Reds alive. The Cardinals, however,  would go on to win 5-4 in 16 innings.

Hamilton added another stolen base as a pinch-runner on September 6 against the Dodgers. The next day, with the game tied 3-3 in the bottom of the 10th, Hamilton again replaced Ludwick, who had drawn a leadoff walk. Right on cue, Hamilton stole second base and then scored the game-ending winning run on a Todd Frazier single.

At this point, Hamilton had appeared in four games, stolen four bases, and scored three runs, with two of those being game-winning runs and the other a game-tying run in extra innings – and he had 0 plate appearances! All this was as a pinch runner. As noted here by ESPN (last paragraph of the article), the Elias Sports Bureau reports Hamilton is the first player in the modern era (since 1900) to record a stolen base in each of his first four major league games.

Hamilton would appear in three more games, drawing a few plate appearances but no hits, before he made his first Major League start Wednesday night at Houston. With the Astros hosting this interleague game as the American League team, the designated hitter rule was in effect, creating an extra spot in the lineup for a position player. This was the last game of a three-game series against the worst team in baseball, and the Reds had won the first two handily. Dusty Baker decided to start Hamilton in center field and move Shin-Soo Choo to left field, batting Hamilton 9th in the order, just ahead of Choo in his customary leadoff spot. Needless to say, the move paid off.

Hamiton went 3-for-4 with two walks, two runs scored, and four stolen bases (the fourth coming on a pitchout) in a 13-inning, 6-5 victory for the Reds. As noted here by Yahoo!, the Elias Sports Bureau reports Hamilton is the first player in the “live ball era” (since 1920) to steal four bases in his first start.

As if that weren’t enough, Hamilton also had an impact in last night’s improbable come-from-behind victory against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the first of 6 meetings the Reds will have against the Pirates in their last 9 games of the regular season. The Reds entered the 9th inning trailing 5-2 but scored three runs in the 9th to tie the game before Joey Votto’s home run in the top of the 10th gave the Reds a 6-5 lead, which Aroldis Chapman would secure for his 38th save.

With Pittsburgh leading 5-2 in the bottom of the 9th with two outs and a runner on second, shortstop Jordy Mercer committed a costly throwing error on a Todd Frazier ground ball that would have won the game for Pittsburgh. Ryan Ludwick scored on the play and Frazier advanced to second. Zack Cozart then singled, moving Frazier to third. Down to his last out and facing a two-run deficit with the go-ahead run at the plate, this is not a situation in which Dusty Baker would normally call on a runner to attempt to steal second base. If it doesn’t work, you’ve essentially run yourself out of the rally and lost the game. However, with Devin Mesoraco at the plate, Baker decided to replace Cozart with Hamilton, who promptly stole second base, giving him 10 stolen bases in 10 attempts on the season. Mesoraco worked a nine-pitch at-bat off Mark Melancon into a sharp infield single off the glove of third baseman Pedro Alvarez, scoring both Frazier and Hamilton to tie the game 5-5, setting the stage for Votto’s go-ahead home run in the 10th.

Just to highlight the impact Hamilton is having on the ball club, check out this video of the entire 9th-inning rally, and look at the way his teammates react and greet him in the dugout near the end of the video.

Hamilton has now appeared in 9 games, going 3-for-8 at the plate while scoring 7 runs and stealing 10 bases in 10 attempts.

To reiterate, there is no discussion about Hamilton’s place on the Reds’ postseason roster. The only question now is…should he start or continue to play mostly off the bench?

I mentioned I would give Jay Bruce his due for that Houston series. Here are Bruce’s numbers for those three games: 7-for-13, 3 doubles, 1 home run (a grand slam), 10 RBI, 3 walks, 0 strikeouts, and 4 runs scored. His grand slam in the second game of the series, a 10-0 victory for Cincinnati, game him exactly 30 home runs and 100 RBI on the season. He had 5 RBI in that game. In the last game of the series (the game in which Billy Hamilton started and stole four bases), Bruce hit three doubles, the last of which came with the bases loaded, breaking a tie in the 13th inning and giving the Reds a 6-4 lead that they would hang on to in a 6-5 win.

Jay Bruce

Bruce now leads the Reds with 103 RBIs, two ahead of Brandon Phillips, who has settled back into the # 2 hole in the lineup. Speaking of which, it’s looking like the # 2 spot in the order is less of a concern these days. That is the traditional spot for Brandon Phillips, and the Reds are doing well him him there. But with Zack Cozart continuing to produce and with Todd Frazier stepping up his offense as well, I think the Reds should be ok with whatever Dusty decides to do with the lineup.

The pitching situation, in terms of choosing the starters for the postseason roster, is as murky as ever with Johnny Cueto back in the fold and Mike Leake pitching well again. Cueto started for the first time since June when he faced Houston in the series opener on Monday. He earned the win, going 5 innings and striking out 5 batters in a 6-1 Reds victory. Leake has been every bit as good as Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo this year, and you could definitely make a case that he’s been the Reds’ best starter. His stats are almost identical to those of Mat Latos, with the only exception being that Latos has a lot more strikeouts. Tony Cingrani is still not ready to rejoin the rotation, as he continues to recover from back spasms. It’s almost impossible to choose which four (or five) of these guys should start in the postseason. But the good news is that the Reds should feel comfortable with any of the six taking the mound. The starting pitchers have been the strength of the team all season long.

Last night’s thrilling victory over the Pirates moved the Reds into a tie with the Pirates for second place in the NL Central, with both teams posting an identical 88-66 record. St. Louis won in extra innings last night, and they currently hold a 2-game lead in the division, with a record of 90-64. With 8 games remaining, the Reds would love to catch the Cardinals and win the division, because the division winner will avoid the dreaded one-game wild card playoff. The Washington Nationals are currently 5 games behind Cincinnati and Pittsburgh for the second wild card spot, so their chances of making the postseason are miniscule. Here are the full standings.

Last night’s game provided more drama in the rivalry between the Reds and Pirates. The Reds will be riding a 4-game winning streak as they play at Pittsburgh tonight in the second game of a three-game series. Then they return home to Cincinnati for three games against the Mets and three more against the Pirates to close out the regular season.