Rookie Connor Phillips gives Reds the unexpected strong start they needed

CINCINNATI — A year ago, en route to just the second 100-loss season in franchise history, the Cincinnati Reds used a franchise record 66 players. Through 152 games this season, the Reds have used 65. It’s a similar number of players, but the results couldn’t be more different.

A year ago, the Reds were hoping to avoid 100 losses. Now they’re scoreboard watching and manager David Bell said before the game that every game is like a playoff game.

In that situation, the most important thing is to have stability in the rotation — pitchers who have been under the pressure of a playoff push, pitchers who aren’t phased by playing a first-place team in a must-win situation, pitchers who have the experience to approach an important game without fear.

The Reds sent 22-year-old Connor Phillips to the mound on Monday for just his third big-league start, with no guarantee he would get another after this.

It wasn’t ideal, but, as with so many other efforts for the Reds this season, it worked out. Phillips allowed just a pair of solo homers and became the first Reds starter to complete seven innings since Graham Ashcraft on Aug. 22, beating the American League Central-leading Minnesota Twins 7-3 Monday at Great American Ball Park.

“It feels like this team has been touched … it feels like it’s been a special season so far,” said Reds first baseman Joey Votto, who was drafted the year after Phillips was born. “To see young players come up and perform in big situations is fun and how it should be.”

Phillips is one of 40 different pitchers to appear in a game for the Reds this season, one of 17 starting pitchers, one of 23 rookies, one of 16 players to make their big-league debut, one of eight rookies to make a start for the Reds this season and one of nine rookies on Monday’s 28-man roster.

There have been ups and downs by the team’s rookies, but overall they’re the reason this team is in contention, tied with the Cubs for the third and final wild-card spot after Miami’s loss Monday.

“I think all of these guys, the common thread amongst all of them is talent,” Votto said. “High ceilings. Athleticism. From the pitching side, power and skill and command and aggressiveness. Guys that were coached well in the minor leagues and were coached in such a way to perform in these big scenarios. So kudos to everyone in the minor leagues for sure. I will be the first one to say it, nearly everyone who has come up has played a brand of baseball that aligns with the major-league game. It’s been very impressive.”

Along with Phillips, the Reds started three other rookies — left fielder Spencer Steer, shortstop Elly De La Cruz and third baseman Noelvi Marte. Those three combined to go 4 for 10 with a pair of RBI. Second-year player Will Benson hit his 11th homer of the season.

Then there was the 40-year-old Votto, who had a pair of hits and drove in a pair of runs.

“We’ve talked a lot about our young players and their preparation and how much they’ve contributed right away when they got here,” Bell said. “But we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are without Joey, just in so many ways. Even when he wasn’t playing, he was a presence.”

In a final homestead that otherwise might have been filled with introspection and speculation surrounding Votto’s future in what may be his final season as a Red, instead the focus is in a place that Votto would much rather have it: on winning games.

Not only that, he contributed. Votto’s always been a player who can figure out how to tailor his game to be the most productive. In an up-and-down season, Votto’s settled on an approach somewhere between his straight-up stance for driving balls out of the park and his crouched down stance for refusing to make outs. The resulted in a pair of hard-hit balls Sunday and two hits Monday.

“It was an adjustment to the league,” Votto said. “I won’t speak too much on tactics, but I adjusted for a bit and the league adjusted back. Certainly the surgery was a factor, but I feel like I’m working towards a repeatable swing that can handle any scenario, any pitcher type.”

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Joey Votto’s swing has evolved over the course of this season. (Jeff Dean / Getty Images)

The Reds scored twice in the second inning, before Phillips gave up his first hit of the game, a fourth-inning solo homer by Twins third baseman Royce Lewis.

Lewis’ homer was one of just three hits he allowed, as Max Kepler followed in the fourth with a single and then Alex Kiriloff homered in the seventh. Phillips struck out seven and walked just one, needing only 93 pitches to get through his seven innings.

Phillips, whose fastball averaged 94.4 mph but reached 98.1 mph, got five swings and misses on that pitch and six on his sweeper, which also accounted for seven called strikes in the 24 he threw of his 93 total pitches.

“His fastball was angry tonight,” said catcher Tyler Stephenson, who hadn’t caught Phillips before Monday. “It was fun tonight and it was fun working behind the plate tonight.”

In a matchup that was obviously important, the game never seemed too big for Phillips, who debuted less than two weeks before Monday on Sept. 5. He didn’t get through the fifth in either of his previous starts, at home against the Mariners and in Detroit. Monday, though, he was in complete control.

In the biggest game of his young career, Phillips showed the promise that made him a key to the trade that sent Eugenio Suárez and Jesse Winker to Seattle before the 2022 season.

He was asked how he managed to temper his emotions in what was an important start for him and his team.

“I think just knowing that everybody in this clubhouse has my back, even though I’ve been here a couple of weeks, everybody wants to win,” Phillips said.

Both times the Twins put a run on the board against Phillips, the Reds answered with multiple runs, two in the fourth and three in the seventh.

“In so many ways, it was just a huge start for our team and on top of that, for Connor where he is in his career, which is at the very beginning stages to show himself and prove to himself how important it is to throw strikes and trust himself and trust his ability and just let it go,” Bell said. “Every step of the way when you can have a start like that and prove that to yourself, that can really help him the rest of the way, but it’s also really important to our team.”

(Top photo of Phillips: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)

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