"He's been struggling for a while," said manager Dusty Baker, who won his first game with the Reds. "He's been tearing himself up internally. You could see it. He was trying a little too hard. He made a couple of miscues the last couple of nights. You know he felt terrible about it."
The Reds were down, 5-3, in the bottom of the ninth and facing Arizona closer Brandon Lyon when Brandon Phillips led off with a lined single to right field. Working against a shift, Adam Dunn nicely slapped a single through an open left side of the infield that made Encarnacion the potential winning run at the plate.
If Encarnacion was tearing himself up before the plate appearance, it certainly didn't show afterward.
"If you put pressure on yourself, you're never going to hit like you're supposed to hit," Encarnacion said. "I know that I'm going to have a great year. I know I'm going to hit, and I know I'm going to do stuff for my team that helps win games. I don't worry about if I'm not hitting right now. I know I'm going to hit."
But Baker felt he had to play it safe. With Encarnacion coming into the at-bat 0-for-2 with two called strikeouts, he signaled for a sacrifice bunt. Encarnacion obliged and showed bunt three times. He offered once and pulled back in time. Lyon threw a nasty offspeed pitch that had Encarnacion fooled as he squared and searched for the ball.
"I told [bench coach] Chris [Speier], 'I hope he doesn't get the bunt down so he gets a three-run homer," Baker said.
The count was 2-2 when Lyon threw a 92-mph fastball. Encarnacion was all over it, pulling the ball 357 feet into the lower-left-field seats for the game-ender.
"From the other side of the field [with the Cubs], he was one of the guys I didn't want to see up there in that kind of situation," Baker said. "Look at his hitting with runners in scoring position, he's a clutch man."
Encarnacion entered the season a .317 career hitter with runners in scoring position. But little had gone right up for him this spring until the ninth inning. He struggled during Spring Training and never got traction at the plate. It also looked as if it might carry into the season on both sides of his game.
In Monday's season opener, during which he was 0-for-2 with two walks, Encarnacion committed a first-inning throwing error that led to a run in a loss. On Wednesday, Cincinnati had just taken a 3-2 lead on Dan Haren in the fourth when Encarnacion made another costly mistake in the fifth.
Arizona had the bases loaded with one out when Eric Byrnes hit a routine grounder to third base. Encarnacion fired a throw wide left of the plate for an error, allowing Haren to score from third base. Pinch-hitter Chris Burke added a sacrifice fly for the go-ahead run.
"I just tried to be aggressive and throw the ball as fast as I could to the plate," Encarnacion said. "Errors are part of the game. There was nothing I could do. [I said], 'Just keep my head up and we got five more innings to play. Anything can happen.'"
The D-backs scored another run in the sixth off Todd Coffey, but in an encouraging sign after so many blowups last season, the Reds bullpen kept the game within reach. In his first game since Aug. 11, 2006, and after reconstructive elbow surgery, lefty Kent Mercker pitched a perfect eighth with two strikeouts.
In the ninth, new Reds lefty reliever Jeremy Affeldt (1-0) worked himself into and out of a bases-loaded jam.
That put Encarnacion into position for some redemption once Phillips and Dunn reached base before him.
"After he made that error, I told him, 'Don't get down on yourself. You might end up winning this game,'" Phillips said he told Encarnacion. "The next thing you know, runners were on first and second and he was on deck. As he walked to the plate, he smiled, and I smiled back."
A few minutes later, all the Reds and 14,016 fans at Great American Ball Park were smiling, too.