MLB Opening Day 2024: Reds clinch first win amid a decidedly different atmosphere than last year

Frankie Montas delivered on the mound and Nick Martini was the unlikely hero at the plate as the Reds delivered to begin the season

CINCINNATI — Opening Day is a special day in Cincinnati, no matter who is on the Reds roster.

Just three times since joining the National League in 1890 have the Reds played the first game of the season away from the Queen City: in 1966 due to rain and in 1990 and 2022, both due to a schedule altered by an offseason lockout. Although not actually legislated in baseball’s rulebook regarding scheduling, it has become the unofficial standard for the oldest professional baseball franchise in America to begin the season at home.

Hours before first pitch, the Findlay Market Parade — first held in 1920 — sparks the festivities with a massive celebration down Race Street, about a mile north of the ballpark, as team alumni and other local figures welcome the new season. This year, 44,030 then made their way into a sold-out Great American Ball Park to witness the Reds claim their first victory of 2024, a comfortable 8-2 win over the Washington Nationals.

But while the Cincinnati crowd likely would’ve been buzzing Thursday afternoon regardless of who was on the mound or in the lineup, the makeup of the 2024 Reds unquestionably gave this season’s first game a different kind of energy — especially in relation to where the organization was a year ago.

“One more year together, one more year of getting to know who we are and one more year to grow in the trust we have in that,” manager David Bell said pregame when asked how this Opening Day felt compared to last year’s, when the team was coming off 100 losses.

“We obviously added to our team this year, too, which is different. And [we added] guys that fit right in.”

Different, indeed. Going into 2023, the Reds spent just under $14 million in free agency — almost half of which went to Wil Myers, who went on to play just 37 games for the team. That was a reasonable course of action coming off such a lousy campaign, particularly in light of the wave of young talent that was still mostly percolating in the minors.

But after such a promising leap forward across the board last season, the front office chose to carry the momentum into the offseason in a meaningful way. This winter, only six teams committed more guaranteed dollars than the nearly $110 million Cincinnati outlayed to seven major-league free agents, including multi-year deals for infielder Jeimer Candelario and right-handed pitchers Nick Martinez and Emilio Pagan.

Arguably the most important free-agent signing, though, was the guy tasked with throwing the first pitch of the Reds’ season: Opening Day starter Frankie Montas. After a wayward Yankees tenure wrecked by shoulder injuries and eventual surgery, Montas was a surprise addition to a Reds rotation already crowded with young talent. The $16 million guaranteed to the right-hander — $14 million in 2024, plus a $2 million buyout on a $20 million mutual option for 2025 — was an emphatic bet that a healthy version of the 31-year-old would quickly remind everyone why he was so highly regarded in the not-so-distant past.

Following a splendid debut that featured six stress-free, scoreless frames, Montas made his mindset clear: “To be honest, I was just trying to go out there and have fun. I know what I can do when I'm healthy. People know what I can do when I'm healthy.”

At the same time, Montas said he isn’t concerned about any outside expectations for any kind of return to form with his new team. “I'm not trying to live up to what people think and expectations, like, ‘Is this Frankie Montas from a couple years ago?' No, this is Frankie Montas for 2024. You know, this is the healthy Frankie Montas. …

“I'm just trying to enjoy every part of it and go out there without thinking about what people are gonna think, you know, just trying to do my job.”

“He loves to compete,” Bell said before the game. “He loves to pitch, and he loves being part of the team. He's a great guy. We've gotten to meet his family, and I think they're happy to be here in Cincinnati, so he's excited for today. It'll be exciting to see what Frankie does this year.”

Going into Thursday, it made sense to forecast that a good day for Cincy would include a gem from Montas. But the Reds’ offensive hero on Opening Day? That, as it turns out, was a bit harder to predict.

Batting eighth as the designated hitter for the Reds to open 2024 was 33-year-old Nick Martini, who has traversed a fascinating career spanning five MLB organizations, plus a season playing in Korea for the NC Dinos in 2022. Despite an excellent collegiate résumé that featured a 93-game on-base streak across three seasons at Kansas State and a wholly respectable .764 OPS in more than 1,000 career MiLB games, Martini had never found an organization that appreciated his left-handed bat to the degree Cincinnati did when it scooped him up a year ago. After a strong four-plus months in Triple-A, Martini quietly posted a .912 OPS down the stretch for Cincinnati last season and continued to show well this spring, prompting his inclusion on the Opening Day roster.

Making the Opening Day roster for the first time in his 14th professional season would’ve been significant enough on its own. But rather than settle for merely making the team, Martini made it count. He smashed the fourth pitch he saw from Josiah Gray over the right-field fence for a two-run homer.

“That first at-bat, I had so much adrenaline because this place was packed out,” Martini said after the game, still in something of a daze from his unexpected starring role in his first big-league Opening Day. “It felt unbelievable.”

The next inning, Martini watched just two more pitches from Gray before swatting another fly ball into the right-field seats for a three-run homer to all but clinch the game for Cincinnati in the third inning. In the process, he became the first Red since Adam Dunn in 2007 — an Opening Day legend in his own right — to hit two home runs in the first game of the season.

“There's an argument for Nick to hit much higher in the lineup,” Bell had said before the game, forecasting what was to come. “It’s a thrill for him to be here. I know that, but now he's focused on going out and doing what he's done his whole career.”

Positive vibes of Opening Day aside, a brutal double-whammy of spring training injuries could leave the Reds with a tough road in the early months of the regular season. Infielder Matt McLain, who excelled as a rookie in 2023 and at times looked like Cincinnati’s best overall player, underwent shoulder surgery earlier this week, putting him on the shelf indefinitely. Center fielder TJ Friedl, who led Cincinnati in bWAR in 2023, suffered a fractured right wrist while diving for a ball in a game earlier this month. He’s expected to miss at least the first month of games.

These injuries will put pressure on veterans such as Candelario and star sophomores such as Elly De La Cruz to hit the ground running. A continued surge of production from an unexpected contributor such as Martini would go a long way, as well.

For his part, Bell is optimistic the Reds have the pieces to stay in the mix until the lineup is back at full strength — or at least closer to it.

“We're excited about Opening Day, mainly because we feel prepared, so we're able to enjoy it,” he said. “And we don't just feel prepared for today. We feel prepared for the whole season.

“I was actually thinking about why Opening Day is such a big deal. It's really not about one day — it's about the hope and the possibilities for the whole season ahead.”