TJ Friedl returns to the Reds’ lineup, but the offense is still struggling

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CINCINNATI — Even before he got into the clubhouse Tuesday afternoon, Cincinnati Reds center fielder TJ Friedl ran across teammate Spencer Steer coming out of the training room.

Friedl showed up to Great American Ball Park about a half-hour earlier than he usually does, around 12:30 p.m., because if he’d shown up when he wanted, nobody would’ve been in the place.

“I came in earlier than I ever would because I just wanted to see everyone, I wanted to be back in the clubhouse with the guys,” Friedl said before Tuesday’s game against the  Arizona Diamondbacks. “Three weeks away, especially with a group like this and how close we are as a team, you miss that energy, you miss that feel. So for me, getting back with these guys, getting back in that clubhouse, was something I needed.”

The Reds need a healthy Friedl, as well. Last season he found his role as the team’s everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter, putting up a .279/.352/.467 slash line with 18 home runs and 27 steals. However, the team’s start this season has shown that a player’s success doesn’t necessarily transfer to the next season.

Friedl was hitless in his four at-bats in his season debut as the Reds lost for the sixth straight game, losing 6-2. He wasn’t alone, as the Reds managed just three hits, including their first two home runs of the homestand.

Even without a guarantee of production, Friedl is key for the Reds. One day during spring training, the coaches loaded up the highlight of Friedl’s inside-the-park home run from last season with the caption “this is how we run the bases.” In the dugout, Friedl is a self-proclaimed “loud guy.”

“It’s just always positive energy and vibes from him,” said Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson, who has played with Friedl since 2017 when the two were in Low-A Dayton together. “He’s always the same guy, just a competitor that wants to go out there and win.”

Friedl suffered a fractured wrist in spring training, a little more than a week after third baseman Noelvi Marte’s 80-game suspension was announced and shortly before second baseman Matt McLain suffered a shoulder injury that would require surgery and keep him out for the majority of the 2024 season.

After just four rehab games at Triple-A Louisville, the Reds decided Sunday to activate Friedl for the series against the Diamondbacks. That came after the team managed just two runs in a series sweep by the Baltimore Orioles in Cincinnati. The Reds entered Tuesday with a .210 team batting average, worse than every team in the majors but the woeful Chicago White Sox.

“That’s the elephant in the room,” Friedl said Tuesday. “For me personally, this game’s hard enough already, right? You throw added pressure on top of that, it’s going to make it more difficult. I’m just going to do what I do and play my role.”

With Friedl back in the fold, Steer will get more work in the infield and could play more third or first in place of the struggling Jeimer Candelario and Christian Encarancion-Strand. Steer started in left field Tuesday, his 31st start at that position in the team’s 35 games. He’s started three games at first, but none at third base, where he started 42 games last season, second only to his 53 starts at first a year ago.

In addition to Friedl’s addition, the Reds also called up outfielder Conner Capel, who was leading Triple-A Louisville with a .984 OPS and seven home runs.

Capel’s promotion and Friedl’s activation came at the expense of two outfielders on the team’s bench, Nick Martini and Bubba Thompson. Capel will likely fill Martini’s role as a left-handed bench bat who can play some outfield, while Thompson was used mostly as a pinch-runner. Martini was sent to Louisville and Thompson to Double-A Chattanooga so both can get regular at-bats.

The Reds also returned Opening Day starter Frankie Montas, who was activated after the minimum stay on the 15-day injured list following a contusion on his right forearm after being hit by a comeback from the Los Angeles Angels’ Taylor Ward last month. Montas suffered the same fate several pitchers have over the last week or so, pitching well but taking the loss because his team was unable to score. Montas allowed two runs — one earned — on four hits over six innings with a walk and seven strikeouts.

Montas was certainly good enough to win, even if his offense didn’t do enough to get that win.

“I feel like every guy here has the right mentality,” Montas said. “They know it’s a long season. We’ve only played 30-something games, we still have 120-something to play. The way they’re approaching this right now, they’re not stopping working. … Things aren’t going their way, but that’s baseball. Some day we’re going to wake up and just start raking.”

(Photo of Friedl: Kareem Elgazzar / The Enquirer / USA Today)

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