The first two months of the season have been a period of extremes for Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Graham Ashcraft, who has struggled in his last four starts.
The right-handed Ashcraft (2-3, 5.57 ERA) hopes to return to his early-season form on Sunday when the visiting Reds look to complete a sweep of a three-game series against the Chicago Cubs.
Ashcraft, 25, fared well in his first six starts. He was 2-0 with a 2.00 ERA during that stretch before going 0-3 with a 12.98 ERA in his next four outings. He allowed seven runs on 10 hits — including two homers — over five innings in an 8-5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday.
“We’ll have to continue to dig in and help him figure it out,” Reds manager David Bell said. “There’s zero concern about Graham’s ability to fight through this and get through it. We’re here to help him through it. It’s just a matter of time.
“The main thing is he’s healthy. The (velocity) is there. We just have to help him find a way to make it easier, get some easier outs and not have to work so hard.”
Ashcraft is 0-4 with an 11.88 ERA in four career starts against the Cubs, who have been out-hit by the Reds 31-10 and outscored 17-5 in the first two games of the series.
Chicago has fallen seven games under .500 after losing 10 of its past 13 contests overall.
“We’re not where we want to be,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I’m sure of that. I think there’s still a lot of potential to be better in a lot of areas. We had some success early on, and kind of hit a little bit of a rut this last month and haven’t really gotten on any kind of roll.”
Cubs President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer said the team can’t afford to continue losing ground in the National League Central.
“It’s not early forever,” Hoyer said. “We need to bank some wins.”
The Cubs will send left-hander Drew Smyly (5-1, 2.93) to the mound in the series finale. He won his fifth straight decision on Tuesday, when he yielded two runs on four hits over five innings against the New York Mets.
Smyly, 33, has allowed two or fewer runs in nine straight starts, posting a 2.13 ERA during that stretch.
Jonathan India has two hits in 10 at-bats against Smyly, who is 5-1 with a 3.89 ERA in nine career games (eight starts) vs. Cincinnati.
India had three hits — including two home runs — and matched a career high with five RBIs in the Reds’ victory on Saturday.
“Nights like tonight remind you of how good of a player he is,” Cincinnati third baseman Nick Senzel said. “Nights like tonight, he can carry us to a W.”
Dansby Swanson and Ian Happ each drove in two runs on Saturday for Chicago, which has allowed 27 runs during a three-game skid. The team’s bullpen faltered again on Saturday when Michael Fulmer and Jeremiah Estrada gave up a combined four runs on four hits in 1 1/3 innings.
The Cubs soon could receive a much-needed boost from right-handed reliever Codi Heuer, who is close to wrapping up his rehab assignment after having Tommy John surgery in March of last year.
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