It was just three months ago when the Cincinnati Reds took two of four games in Atlanta and played the spoiler role as the city celebrated its World Series title.
The hope, at the time, was the Reds could be a surprisingly competitive team despite parting with several veteran players during the offseason. Injuries had yet to ravage through the roster and optimism always reigns at the beginning of the season.
That four-game series was the highlight of the Reds’ season. It’s been a three-month slide since that point, but Albert Almora Jr.’s walk-off single in the ninth inning gave the Reds a brief respite from their struggles.
In a game where the Reds were no-hit for six innings, rallied for a two-run lead in the eighth and lost that lead in the ninth, it was Almora who provided the heroics to lift the Reds in a dramatic 4-3 victory at Great American Ball Park on Sunday, snapping their 10-game home losing streak.
"We had the energy when we went up, 3-1," Almora said. "That was as excited as I’ve seen the dugout in a bit."
Reds injury updates: Aramis Garcia sits for the fourth straight game
Who will the Reds trade? A breakdown of the trade candidates by tiers
After the Reds were one-hit in their loss to Atlanta on Saturday, striking out a season-high 16 times, they were held to one hit through seven innings by Atlanta's starter Charlie Morton. The no-hit bid didn't end until Max Schrock hit a leadoff groundball single to begin the bottom of the seventh inning.
Then it was an offensive explosion. The Reds had four consecutive hits against reliever Collin McHugh in the eighth inning, including a pinch-hit, two-run double by Brandon Drury.
"I remember Opening Day, he threw me a curveball and I've seen it pretty good," said Drury, who homered on a slider from McHugh on Opening Day. "I was just trying to trust myself today to stay on the fastball because I'm going to pick the slider. He threw me his fastball with cut over (the plate) and took a good swing at it."
It was a GABP special where a pitching duel instantly flipped into a slugfest. Atlanta erased its two-run deficit in the ninth inning with a pair of solo homers. Marcell Ozuna hit a 112-mph line drive that hit the face of the second deck in left field, and when Atlanta was down to its final out, Michael Harris II hammered a ball into the right-field seats to hand Hunter Strickland a blown save.
In the bottom of the ninth inning, Tommy Pham singled in a seven-pitch at-bat after falling into a 0-2 count. Joey Votto drew an eight-pitch walk. Then Jonathan India was hit by a pitch to load the bases for Almora, who flew out with the bases loaded to end Saturday's game.
Almora shot the first pitch he saw through the left side of the infield for the game winner. He was mobbed by teammates along the first-base line in front of the crowd of 21,418.
“I was surprised I kept it fair," Almora said. "It was a good, hard cutter down. I’m sure that’s where he wanted to throw it. I just kind of beat it to the spot and it got through. It wasn’t a cookie by any means.”
Atlanta hasn’t swept the Reds in a three-game series in Cincinnati since 1995. Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine started those three games and there were times during the weekend series where it looked like the Reds were facing those Hall of Famers again.
Morton, who struck out every Reds hitter except Almora, carved up hitters with his curveball. He lost his perfect game when he walked Votto to begin the fifth inning, but he erased it by picking Votto off first base.
Luis Castillo didn't have no-hit stuff like Morton, but he nearly matched him and gave the Reds every opportunity to avoid the sweep. Fresh off a 123-pitch performance last week, Castillo continued to showcase why he’s arguably the best pitcher available on the trade market. He didn’t fool many hitters with his changeup Sunday, but his fastball is overpowering at the top of the strike zone.
"What we’re watching Luis do right now is very special," Reds Manager David Bell said. "He walks the leadoff batter and basically he matched what Morton did pitch for pitch the rest of the game. We’re getting used to it, but we can’t take it for granted."
The biggest mistake Castillo made was leaving a slider in the strike zone for Ozuna in the fourth inning. Ozuna launched it to the second deck in left field for a 396-foot solo homer. It was just the third homer against Castillo in his last nine starts.
Castillo completed seven innings in 103 pitches, permitting six hits and one walk, with scouts from a couple of teams in attendance. He struck out six and lowered his season ERA to 3.09.
"Fastball was perfect," Castillo said through an interpreter. "It was moving perfectly."
After a four-game losing streak, the Reds finally had something to celebrate. It was their first home win since June 7, nearly a full month.
"We definitely needed this," Almora said. "I was shocked when you said 10 (games). I felt like we hadn’t been playing bad baseball. It’s been the luck of the draw. We’ve been playing great teams and we’re hanging in there. We’re fortunate to get this one."
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Albert Almora, Luis Castillo lift Reds to comeback win vs. Braves