CINCINNATI -- Major League Baseball's Opening Day is a wonderful, evocative, tradition-laden occasion in Cincinnati, and the luster endures even when the game-time temperature is 41 degrees and the season begins on March 31. As Reds manager Dusty Baker observed, he has never worked in a city where so many fans keep a running tab of how many consecutive season openers they've attended.
"People will say, 'This is my 35th in a row,' or, 'This is my 12th,'" Baker said. "And I can't recall a place where they have a parade prior to the season. I was talking to Edgar Renteria and [Miguel Cairo] today. We're just hoping we have two parades this year -- one at the beginning and one at the end."
Reds fans reveled in the usual pomp and circumstance before a Thursday matinee in the Queen City. They watched Hall of Famer Joe Morgan serve as grand marshal of the 92nd Findlay Market Parade, then enjoyed a pregame video tribute to the late, great Sparky Anderson at Great American Ball Park. But after the Reds fell behind early against Milwaukee and seemed headed for defeat, fingers and toes grew progressively colder in the stands, and many in the crowd of 42,398 began filing up the runways for the exits.
The Reds proved last season that they're a determined bunch right up to the last pitch. Their 45 come-from-behind victories tied them for second most in the majors behind the New York Yankees' 48. And they logged 22 wins in their last at-bat, tying them with Philadelphia for second most in the majors behind the Atlanta Braves' 25.
Some statistical trends don't carry over from one season to the next. But the Reds still have the karma, swagger and self-assurance to believe that the longer a game drags on, the more the balance of power shifts in their favor. One game into the 2011 season, they're batting 1.000 in spine-tinglers.
Down three runs entering the bottom of the ninth inning, the Reds summoned an inspirational comeback against Brewers closer John Axford. It ended with a three-run, opposite-field home run by catcher Ramon Hernandez, who was joyfully cuffed around at home plate by his teammates in celebration of a 7-6 Cincinnati victory.
The paying customers who weren't around for the conclusion can take this as a lesson: It's permissible to arrive late for Reds games, but anyone who cuts out early is taking a risk.
"I looked up and saw people leaving, and I was like, 'C'mon, man, you're slipping on us already?'" Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "We're the comeback kids, man. If people had some kids they had to get from day care, I understand. But if you're going to leave the game just because we're losing look what happens.
"If people were in the car or at home, I know they must have been saying, 'Damn, I wish we would have stayed.'"
The Reds and Brewers, who've made a combined three postseason appearances in the past 20 years, are trendy picks in the National League Central for different reasons. Cincinnati has the reigning NL MVP in Joey Votto, two dynamic young outfielders in Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs, reliable veterans in Scott Rolen and Phillips, a 100 mph relief weapon in Aroldis Chapman, an airtight infield defense, and lots of depth in the rotation and the bullpen.
Brewers backers point to a starting rotation strengthened by the offseason additions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, and a lineup that's always going to be dangerous with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in the Nos. 3 and 4 spots. Cincinnati led the league with 188 home runs last season, and Milwaukee was right behind with 182.
But both teams had to overcome some hiccups in spring training. Milwaukee right fielder Corey Hart (oblique strain) and catcher Jonathan Lucroy (fractured pinkie) began the season on the disabled list, and Greinke's ill-advised pickup basketball adventures make it likely that he'll miss at least three starts because of a fractured left rib.
The Reds aren't exactly a monument to good health, either. Starters Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto are on the disabled list, and Bronson Arroyo, who has been dogged by a bout of mononucleosis, took a break from his customary parade-riding appearances Thursday morning while pitchers Mike Leake and Travis Wood represented the club.
"I got the youngsters out there today,'' Arroyo said. "I've been a little too sickly."
Rickie Weeks and Carlos Gomez got the Brewers off to a rousing start against Cincinnati starter Edinson Volquez, becoming the first big leaguers to begin a season with back-to-back homers since the Reds' Pete Rose and Bobby Tolan went deep against Don Drysdale in April 1969 at Crosley Field. And the Brewers did a nice job with the little things, from third baseman Casey McGehee's sweet backhand stop on a Phillips ground ball to Braun alertly taking second base on a bobble by Reds left fielder Jonny Gomes.
Yovani Gallardo, making his second straight Opening Day start for the Brewers, shut down the Reds' lineup on two runs through six innings. But the Reds bided their time and finally broke through in the ninth against Axford, who endured a rocky March before finally getting a handle on his command near the end of spring training. Axford's Cactus League stat line -- a 5.40 ERA and 16 baserunners allowed in 8 1/3 innings -- was not one to remember.
Cincinnati's ninth-inning rally consisted of a Phillips single, a walk to Votto, a fielder's choice and a sacrifice fly before Hernandez turned around an 0-1 fastball for the game winner. While the cozy dimensions at Great American enhance the chances of a late long ball for the home team, the Reds' flair for turning despair to jubilation knows no bounds.
"We have good offensive players," Rolen said. "That's a big help. We try to stay away from being results-oriented and just try to grind out good at-bats and get guys on base. Make pitchers throw strikes and make them work a little bit, and you put yourself in a position for something to happen.''
The Reds got a little lucky, too. Rolen hit a ground ball that could have been a double play, but Phillips deftly avoided the tag from McGehee. And instead of two outs and one runner on base, the Reds had nobody out and the bases loaded. Phillips called the move his "Ochocinco special," in reference to his good buddy and fellow Tweeter extraordinaire, Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco.
"'Dancing with the Stars' is next,'' Phillips said. "When I saw him reach the glove out, that's when I went into my 'Matrix' mode and got out of the way. It was pretty funny to hear him say he touched me. But I would have done the same thing."
It was the third career walk-off homer for Hernandez, who previously touched up Jon Rauch in 2005 and Scot Shields in 2006. Hernandez absorbed the obligatory home plate pummeling from his Cincinnati teammates, who've become adept at this celebration routine with practice. Now they just have to get the manager on board.
"These guys don't quit," Baker said. "I tell them, 'Sometimes I wish you would do it a little earlier. It would be a little easier on my heart.'"
And to think, there are only 161 games to go.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick