ST. LOUIS -- Until Wednesday, Billy Hamilton seemed like a high-performance sports car that hadn't been taken out of the garage yet. Through the first stretch of games, Hamilton either rarely reached base safely or was hurt and unable to play.
For quite a while after the 4-0 Reds win over the Cardinals, many will probably be talking about how Hamilton's legs went "vroooom" from third to home to score on what was essentially a sacrifice pop fly just outside of the infield.
"I told [my teammates]: 'I'm going to make something happen for you if I get the chance. Put the ball in play and I got your back,'" Hamilton said.
Hamilton reached safely four times with three hits, two steals and two runs scored while starting pitcher Mike Leake sped through the St. Louis lineup for eight innings of four-hit baseball as the Reds claimed the finale of the three-game series for a 2-4 road trip.
Cincinnati was already up 2-0 in the fifth inning against Cardinals starter Shelby Miller when Hamilton led off with a single to left field. He stole second base and advanced to third base on Brandon Phillips' shallow fly to right field before Joey Votto walked.
Next was Jay Bruce, who skied what would normally be a routine popup to short right field behind second base. As Kolten Wong went back on the ball, right fielder Jon Jay charged in for the catch not too far from the infield dirt.
Hamilton was tagging up on the play, but he wouldn't actually break for home ... or would he?
"When the fly ball went up in the air, [third-base coach Steve] Smith was like, 'I want to see how fast you really are,'" Hamilton explained. "I was like, 'OK, that's giving me the key point to go.' He didn't say go, but I knew I had to go."
Hamilton raced to the plate ahead of Jay's perfect throw and beat catcher Yadier Molina's tag attempt.
"We didn't think there would be a chance that he would go," said Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco, who hit a two-out, two-run home run in the fourth inning. "It was awesome. It was really fun to see. He's so exciting. He gets everybody on the edge of their seat. I think with Billy, there's a lot more of those to come."
The Cardinals may have been on the wrong end of that play -- and the game -- but they were equally impressed.
"That's the first time I've seen that," Molina said. "He's so fast. Like I said, every time he's on base he's going to be dangerous. … Any time you see a guy with that kind of speed, he can change the game."
The Reds were 0-3 vs. the Cardinals when Leake started last season, but he was in firm control on Wednesday. The right-hander faced two over the minimum 24 batters while throwing 100 pitches with three strikeouts and a walk. Two of the hits and the walk against him were erased by ground-ball double plays in the fourth, fifth and eighth innings.
A total of 17 Cardinals outs came via the ground ball from Leake. No runners got beyond second base all afternoon.
"Even though there were a few counts I was behind, I was able to make a pitch to get some action in the field and some double plays and let the defense work," Leake said. "We did a really good job today. Mes did a great job. Keeping the ball down and keeping them guessing was the main thing today. They didn't really seem to know what to expect each time. There was a lot of mixing it up today."
Hamilton's output helped make the Reds' 1-for-11 day as a team with runners in scoring position a moot point. It started ominously, when Hamilton began the game with a triple to left field and was stranded after Phillips and Votto struck out and Bruce grounded routinely to first base.
In the third, Hamilton drew a two-out walk and was left stranded. After his hit and run in the fifth, Hamilton grounded out in the sixth. In the ninth, he executed a perfect bunt in front of the plate against reliever Pat Neshek and beat Molina's throw for a single.
Hamilton successfully stole second base and scored an important insurance run on a Phillips RBI single.
"That's kind of as advertised right there," Reds manager Bryan Price said of Hamilton. "We've been waiting for that game, and I was really glad to see it today."
The blueprint of having Hamilton leading off and using his speed to create scoring chances was collecting dust. He went 0-for-12 with one walk and six strikeouts in the first series vs. the Cardinals. He was unable to start the next series against the Mets because he jammed his left middle finger getting thrown out stealing as a pinch-runner on Friday.
With the period of small sample sizes still reigning, Hamilton's batting average jumped 101 points to .192 with Wednesday's performance, and his on-base percentage climbed from .130 to .250.
"It's a big relief," Hamilton said. "I'm starting to feel like that fun is coming back into it. I'm starting to be myself, getting all the pressure off myself and playing the game of baseball. These guys have been helping me the whole way through, even when I was struggling at the start. They keep me up through the struggling and the good times."