Catcher Tyler Stephenson will get his first true Opening Day experience for the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday.
Three years ago, when Stephenson was a rookie, the Reds opened the 60-game pandemic-shortened season in an empty stadium with the stands lined with cardboard cutouts of fans. In 2021, the stadium could be filled to only 30% of capacity because of rules about outdoor gatherings during the COVID-19 crisis. Last year, the lockout delayed the start of the season, forcing the Reds to start the season on the road in Atlanta.
Finally, this year, the Reds will open the season at Great American Ball Park as tradition dictates for baseball’s first professional franchise in front of 40,000-plus fans.
“I’ve heard a lot about it,” Stephenson told reporters in Cincinnati on Monday. “I’m excited to experience it for the first time, and I know everybody in the clubhouse, we’re all excited.”
The Reds play the Pittsburgh Pirates at 4:10 p.m. Thursday in the opener of a three-game series. Hunter Greene, who was 5-13 with a 5.44 ERA last season as a rookie, will make his first Opening Day start against Mitch Keller, who was 5-12 with a 3.91 ERA in his fourth season in the big leagues.
The Reds and Pirates tied for last in the National League Central Division last season with 62-100 records. Either the Reds or the Pirates have occupied last place eight years in a row.
The Reds haven’t won a playoff series or a wild-card game since 1995. The Pirates beat the Reds in the wild-card game in 2013 and lost in that round the next two years. The Pirates haven’t won a World Series since 1979. The Reds last won in 1990.
The experts don’t expect much from the Reds and Pirates this season. A Major League Baseball power ranking released by ESPN on Wednesday had the Reds at No. 28 out of 30 teams and projected them to finish 70-92, giving them a 3% chance of making the playoffs. The Pirates ranked 25th in the same story. ESPN projected them to win one more game than the Reds and gave them a 4% chance of making the playoffs.
While the level of confidence in the team’s chances outside the Reds clubhouse is low, the team has different feelings.
“I feel like the confidence has only grown and the energy has only continued to grow,” Stephenson said. “We’re all excited to get this thing kicked off on Thursday.”
The Reds got off to a 3-22 start last season and were on pace to be one of the worst teams in baseball history. They avoided that fate with a 14-13 record in May and also had a winning July with a 14-12 mark.
Stephenson said manager David Bell pushed the importance of a fast start throughout spring training.
“Nobody wants to go 3-22 or whatever it was,” he said. “That just can’t happen. We all know it. The staff knows it. We’ll be ready.”
The Reds finished 15-14-1 in spring training. It was their second winning record in a row in the Cactus League and their fourth in the 14 seasons they have spent in Goodyear, Ariz.
“We talked about getting after it and working to get ready for this, to be as ready as we possibly can for day one,” Bell said. “Through that, I think we got to know each other well. We improved. It was a quality spring training with just the way we played. So not only are we ready, I think we’re set up to be really strong as a team to take on whatever comes our way.”
Pirates at Reds, 4:10 p.m., Bally Sports Ohio, 700, 1410