Reds’ Barnhart on the right rack after early-season struggles

The Reds’ Tucker Barnhart hits a home run in the fourth inning against the Braves on Tuesday, April 23, 2019, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. David Jablonski/Staff

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The Reds’ Tucker Barnhart hits a home run in the fourth inning against the Braves on Tuesday, April 23, 2019, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. David Jablonski/Staff

Tucker Barnhart couldn’t put a finger on why he got off to such a lousy start at the plate this season. Similarly, he can’t quite pinpoint why he’s suddenly getting hot.

The Reds catcher, who was hitting .254 in his career going into this season, took a seven-game hitting streak into a day out of the starting lineup on Wednesday. The 28-year-old switch-hitter was hitting .360 (9-for-25) with a double, two home runs and eight runs batted in during the stretch, which was Cincinnati’s longest current streak and had boosted his average from .158.

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“I feel better,” he said before Wednesday’s game against Pittsburgh. “I still have a ways to go. It’s hard to describe the first part of the season. It’s hard to put into words. It’s weird. I just didn’t feel right. You look at the video and you don’t see any big differences.”

Barnhart can’t trace his current streak to any significant changes in his approach or stance. Balls that weren’t falling in March and April and early May now are finding grass or the seats.

“I’m not seeing anything much different,” he said.

Barnhart has been an active contributor to a resurgent Cincinnati offense that spent most of the season ranked last in the 15-team National League in hitting before moving up to 13th. The Reds averaged 6.5 runs per game over their last 10 going into Wednesday’s game, and they were 6-4 in those games to move as high as three games under .500 for the first time since they were 5-8 on April 13. For the entire season, they had outscored their opponents by 41 runs, 247-206.

“To be three games under .500 (26-29) with a run differential of over 40 is unheard of,” said Barnhart, crediting the pitching with part of the margin.

Manager David Bell’s consistent message during the beginning-of-the-season team-wide slump was patience. His confidence in his players’ track records – what former manager Dusty Baker used to call the “backs of their baseball cards” – was paying off.

“This is a continuation of what we’ve been talking about,” he said before Wednesday’s game. “They have a track record, and they continued to work at it. The slump wasn’t something we took lightly, and they worked and made adjustments. What we’re seeing now is a little bit more of what we expected.”

Sims-pact: Right-hander Lucas Sims's impressive start on Tuesday – one of the best by a Reds pitcher this season – won't automatically lead to a spot in the rotation, Bell said.

Sims, recalled from Triple-A Louisville to become just the sixth pitcher to start this season, turned in six scoreless innings before wilting in the seventh and giving up a grand slam. Still, his 7-1/3 innings were the longest outing by a Reds starter this season.

“His role hasn’t been determined yet,” Bell said. “We have no plans to change our rotation.”

Somebody wondered if a performance such as Sims’s could put the other starters on notice.

“That’s a fair question,” Bell replied. “Our starters just need to focus on continuing to do what they have been doing. What he did makes us feel good about our depth.”

Cincinnati’s rotation went into Wednesday’s game with a combined 3.61 earned-run average that ranked second in the NL behind Los Angeles’s 3.56 and fourth in the majors.

Bell confirmed that the Reds rotation for the weekend series against Washington will be Tyler Mahle on Friday, Tanner Roark on Saturday and Sonny Gray on Sunday.

Another day: First baseman Joey Votto missed his third straight start while dealing with a tight right hamstring that cropped up late in the first game of Monday's doubleheader.

“He’s improving,” Bell said. “That’s a good sign. With (Thursday’s) off day, it made sense to give him two more days. He tested it out hard yesterday, and he was feeling pretty good. He reported today feeling better.”

Duke ready: Decision-makers were still weighing the roster moves to be made when left-handed relief pitcher Zach Duke is eligible to be reinstated from the 10-day injured list on Thursday. Duke has been out with a right calf problem since May 21. Duke may sent to the minors on a rehab assignment, Bell said.

The 36-year-old veteran is 2-1 with a 6.32 ERA in in 22 games. Right-handed batters are hitting .318 against him, while left-handers are batting .250.

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