Cincinnati could find magic in October
Despite 90-win record, Reds never hit full stride during regular season
CINCINNATI -- Many people's favorite to win it all heading into the season, the Reds have created one weird vibe during the 2013 season. While they've won 90 games, something that should be respected, it just hasn't felt this season like Cincinnati is a team of destiny.
That could certainly turn on a dime. The Reds' way into the postseason is going to be different than their trips in 2010 and '12, but the mission remains the same. If they keep the spark they've had in September, they have a chance to go far in October.
"We never felt like we got on a run this year," reliever Sam LeCure said. "But you do see it in the playoffs every year where a team, for whatever reason, clicks at the right time. Something brings them together. We hope we're that team."
Elimination from the National League Central race came after Wednesday's loss, but the Reds are assured of the first or second NL Wild Card spot. The NL Wild Card Game will be on Tuesday against either the Pirates or the Cardinals. St. Louis' magic number to clinch the division is 1.
If Cincinnati can win two of three from Pittsburgh this weekend in the final regular-season series and take the first spot, Great American Ball Park will host the NL Wild Card Game.
"This team seems to take the hard road most of the time," manager Dusty Baker said. "You want to play in front of your home fans all the time, especially in big games like that. Last year, we felt like we were all cheated out of more. What you want and what you get are two different things sometimes, but the bottom line is to win and keep on with it."
This is the third time in four years that the Reds have reached the playoffs under Baker, but it will be their first experience as a Wild Card team.
"To be honest with you, the identity of this team is yet to be established," starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo, the longest-tenured Red, said. "It's basically the exact same road we took last year. If we fall short in the playoffs or not make it to the true postseason, then I think we're labeled as a good group of baseball players that can't achieve greatness. That's what's going to land on our heads this year."
Led by general manager Walt Jocketty, the Reds demonstrated in the offseason how seriously they wanted to achieve that greatness this season. To improve sagging results from the leadoff spot, Shin-Soo Choo was acquired from the Indians in a three-way trade for Drew Stubbs and prospect Didi Gregorius. The deal was made even though Choo is headed for free agency this winter and will likely be too expensive to re-sign.
Reliever Jonathan Broxton was re-signed to a three-year contract with the assumption that Aroldis Chapman might move into the rotation. But during Spring Training, Cincinnati decided to keep Chapman in the closer role to give the team the best chance to win it all -- now.
With their play, the Cardinals and Pirates have shown that they have something to say about that, and the Reds spun their wheels at times. Amid injuries to key players such as Johnny Cueto, Ryan Ludwick, Sean Marshall and Broxton that forced Baker to improvise more than he would have liked, the team posted just three four-game win streaks, two five-game runs and one of six games. Missing was the 25-3 type of stretch that the club enjoyed in the middle of summer 2012.
Momentum was hard to come by. At times, the offense dried up and the key two-out hit was elusive.
"We've played well. We haven't played great. We've had a lot of injuries, and a lot of guys have stepped up," right fielder Jay Bruce said. "I think that will help us in the playoffs."
On the other hand, there were only two five-game losing streaks, and none lasted longer than that. Starting pitching, even without Cueto, deserves much of the credit, as the Reds boast three 14-game winners, six starters with ERAs under 4.00 and three starters with 197 or more innings pitched. Several stepped up in the bullpen without Marshall and Broxton, including LeCure, J.J. Hoover and Manny Parra. The staff's 17 shutouts are second most in the Majors.
Cincinnati last led the NL Central on April 22 and has been more than a game back of the top spot since May 25. Its deficit was seven games on Aug. 8.
"It's kind of a shame that this season, for a lot of people, has been viewed as a disappointment for us, because we're in third place," LeCure said. "We've still won 90 games. We're still a good team. I said it's a shame, but we feel that way, too. We feel like there have been a lot of games that we left out there, games that we should have won. Maybe we wouldn't be in the situation if he had won them."
The Reds haven't won a playoff series since 1995, when they swept the Dodgers in the NL Division Series, only to be swept by the Braves in the NL Championship Series.
The NLDS has been an excruciating experience more recently. In 2010 vs. the Phillies, the Reds were dealt the second no-hitter in postseason history by Roy Halladay in Game 1 before being swept in three games.
Last season, the Reds lost Cueto only eight pitches into Game 1 vs. the Giants. Cincinnati still took a 2-0 lead with a pair of wins at AT&T Park, only to lose the series by dropping three straight at Great American Ball Park to be eliminated.
"I believe it's a heck of an opportunity," said Bruce, the team's home run and RBI leader. "The feeling in here is we have the team to do it. We've learned from our past successes and mistakes. If you're in the playoffs, you have a chance."
With core talent like Bruce, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Chapman locked up for the long term and others such as Mat Latos, Todd Frazier, Zack Cozart and top prospect Billy Hamilton under team control, the Reds have a window of contention that could be open beyond this season.
Of course, there are no promises -- hence the win-now approach. Once again, Baker will enter the final year of his two-year contract next season. And it's possible this could be final year for Arroyo, a pending free agent, and that Choo -- who more than validated his acquisition with solid production from the leadoff spot -- will be one and done.
"Every year, you say, 'We have a chance, we have a chance.' And you do," Arroyo said. "But with this group of guys under Dusty's regime, the way it stands today, it will probably no longer be exactly the same after this year, if we can't at least push deeper in the playoffs than the first round. … If we get into the second round and show the capabilities of winning a ring, I think it changes things for the stamp you put on this team."
Before going deep in the playoffs, the Reds have to win on Tuesday. It's a one-game Wild Card round, where the winner moves on and the loser goes home.
It's that simple, happening during a season that's been anything but that.