Questioned whether he truly thought it was a step backward, Mahle softened his stance.
“Maybe not backward, but I don’t think I necessarily got better today,” he said. “I was all over the place. I was just kind of battling. Today was more lucky than anything.”
Luck may carry a young pitcher through an inning or two, or maybe, if Mahle’s to be believed, an entire start.
But when you start to string together outings the way he has – 3-0 in his last four starts with four earned runs in 22.1 innings with 20 strikeouts and 10 walks – that’s more finesse than fortune.
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A year ago Wednesday, Mahle was still at Double-A Pensacola. He got the call-up to Triple-A Louisville the following day, and he made his major league debut with the Reds on Aug. 27, going 1-2 with a 2.70 ERA in four starts.
He’s 6-6 this year with a 3.89 ERA, which is the best among a starting rotation that features three pitchers who are 25 or younger, along with Luis Castillo (25) and Sal Romano (24).
Mahle and Romano’s lockers are next to each other in the Reds clubhouse, as are their spots in the rotation, and they seem to be building momentum off each other. After Romano allowed one run in eight innings at Kansas City in his best outing of the year last week, Mahle came back the next day and allowed no runs in 6.1 innings.
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Then in the Detroit series, Romano blanked the Tigers through seven to get the win Tuesday, and Mahle followed with another win Wednesday.
“We were talking a little bit about that before the game,” Reds manager Jim Riggleman said. “I think that is there, and I think that’s a really good thing. Castillo is right in there in the mix with those young guys. I think they are in a very positive way feeding off each other. That’s a wonderful thing if we can make that grow.”
The flip side of that is the way Mahle has been able to limit damage and keep it from growing.
Both of the runs he gave up Wednesday were home runs, bringing his season total to 15, which are second most on the team behind Castillo’s 17.
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“We’ve given up home runs as a staff, but if you can give up solo homers and then quiet the inning down after that, you’re usually going to be in good shape,” Riggleman said. “There’s been some great pitchers who had a knack for doing that. Back in the day, Catfish Hunter, Bert Blyleven, they gave up a lot of homers but generally nobody on base. You’ve got to just try to keep it at one. If you can give up one at a time, you’re usually going to have a lot of success.”
Mahle said he was pleased with the way he bounced back from the two solo home runs — the first came with one out in the first, the second with no outs in the fourth — but he wasn’t about to praise himself for it. Instead, he said neither should have happened in the first place.
“I think they could have been avoided,” he said. “I struck out the first batter on three strikes, so I’ve got to know that the second batter (Jeimer Candalerio), he’s expecting me to throw a strike. So maybe I throw it an inch or two off the plate and see if he chases it and it changes that whole at-bat, instead of grooving one in there and he smacks it out to left.
“The 2-2 changeup (to Niko Goodrum) wasn’t necessarily a good pitch on a guy that kind of had a longer swing,” Mahle added. “If we go fastball in, that’s a different at-bat as well. I’m happy that I didn’t let it get out of hand, but it definitely could have been a 0-0 ballgame going into the bottom of the sixth.”
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Mahle’s next start is schedule for Monday night in Atlanta against Braves rookie Mike Soroka. The only other time Mahle faced Atlanta, he struck out 11, which stands as his career high.
The talk throughout the Reds rebuild has been once the starting pitching gets better, the team will be on its way up. Mahle said he accepts that responsibility and pointed to recent results, with the pitching improving and the Reds going 20-18 over their last 39 games and 6-2 in their last eight.
“If the starting pitching goes out there and doesn’t give up four or five runs and goes six and gives our bullpen a little rest, we’re going to win games as we have of late,” he said. “Our starting pitchers have done a lot better than what we’ve been doing and we’re winning games.
“We’re always going to score runs, and the bullpen’s great. They’re always putting up zeroes,” he added. “So I think a lot of it is on the starting pitching to not go out there and give up a ton of runs and go out there and compete.”
Who: Atlanta Braves vs. Cincinnati Reds
Where: Great American Ball Park, Cincinnati
When: 7:10 p.m.