Your Cincinnati Reds have qualified for the 2020 Major League Baseball playoffs. Go ahead, read that sentence again. Read it aloud. Savor it. Enjoy it.
It has been seven long years since the Reds had an opportunity to play for post-season glory. Seven years filled with letdowns and disappointments and tears and, well, you get the picture. It hasn’t been much fun, right? But when the Reds take the field in Atlanta on Wednesday, they will have the opportunity to exercise some demons.
And not just seven years worth, either. It’s been a full quarter-century since the Reds advanced in the playoffs. Many of my devoted readers aren’t old enough to remember the last time a Reds team won a playoff series, a sweep of the Dodgers in the 1995 NL Division Series. That many years of futility can’t be erased just by finishing two games over .500 and grabbing the seventh seed in a funky new playoff system.
No, the Reds have to advance in the playoffs if they hope to get that particular monkey off their collective backs. But as I told you last week, there is every reason to believe that the Reds will finally break the curse and win some games that actually mean something.
In order to advance to this year’s Division Series, the Reds will have to get past the Braves, NL East champions and the No. 2 overall seed in the National League. Atlanta is an excellent baseball team, but if I could hand-pick which of the top-four seeds I wanted the Reds to play, it’d be the Braves. And not entirely for baseball-related reasons.
The 1995 Reds might well have been the best team of my lifetime. Barry Larkin was at the height of his powers, winning the NL Most Valuable Player award. Reggie Sanders might even have been better that year (.306/.397/.579, 28 HR, 99 RBI). The Reds had the best offense in baseball, Pete Schourek almost won a Cy Young Award, and Davey Johnson was the best skipper in the league.
Why am I discussing a team from 25 years ago? Because a sweep at the hands of the Braves in the 1995 NLCS sent this Cincinnati franchise into a tailspin from which they’ve never recovered. Wouldn’t it be perfect symmetry for the Reds to finally win another post-season series by defeating Atlanta?
As we begin to analyze the 2020 series against Atlanta, I detect yet another note of symmetry. In 1995, the Reds had the best offense in the league but were ushered out of the post-season by a brilliant Atlanta rotation, featuring Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. As Michael Scott might say, “Well, well, well. How the turn tables…”
You already know about Cincinnati’s dominant rotation, led by Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo, and Sonny Gray. Permit me to introduce you to Atlanta’s offense that may very well be the best in all of baseball. First baseman Freddie Freeman just might win the NL MVP award after a season in which he hit .341/.462/.640 with 13 homers and 23 doubles. But he may not even be the best hitter on his own team! Ronald Acuña Jr., possibly the most exciting young player in baseball, has been outstanding this year (.250/.406./581 with 14 home runs), and Marcell Ozuna (.338/.431/.636, 18 home runs) is making the case that he should be one of the premier free agents available after this season. Let’s not forget our old friend Adam Duvall, who has crushed 16 homers of his own in a comeback season.
On the pitching side, well, the picture for Atlanta isn’t quite so rosy. The bullpen led by Mark Melancon, Tyler Matzek, and Shane Greene has been rock solid. Among the starters, Max Fried is a 26-year-old future star and, though he suffered an ankle injury in early September, expect him to be as good as any pitcher the Reds have faced this year. Rookie Ian Anderson has been very good in six starts but, well, he’s a rookie and it’s only been six starts.
Otherwise, the rotation has been plagued by injury and inconsistency. Mike Soroka and Cole Hamels are on the injured list and won’t return. No other Atlanta starter has an ERA below 5.21. One thing to watch: The Braves gave up fewer runs via the home run than any team in baseball. As you are no doubt aware, the Reds are extraordinarily reliant on the home run; no team in baseball scored fewer runs on hits other than longballs.
These are two teams that don’t have a lot of similarities, which should result in an entertaining best-of-3 series. You have to like Cincinnati’s chances. Look at it from the Braves perspective. If the Reds can win game one behind NL Cy Young-favorite Bauer, the Braves will have to win back-to-back games that will be started by two pitchers (Anderson and Wright) who both qualify as rookies this year. And those youngsters will be facing two 2019 All-Stars, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray. Also note that Bauer and Gray have made 11 post-season starts in their careers. None of the Braves pitchers have started even one.
But there’s another reason why Reds fans should be confident about this opening series. After the Reds clinched a spot in the post-season, Joey Votto was asked about this team. He began by saying that he likes this team better than the previous playoff teams on which he played. But then he said this: “I think we’re a f-ing nightmare, and I think everybody knows that. I can’t wait.”
This team has struggled through tough times. They kept the faith when everyone around them doubted, and they seem to have come out the other side stronger for it. They appear to be peaking at the right time, and they also have more swagger than I’ve seen from a Reds team in many, many years.
Maybe that’s just a convenient narrative. There are certainly a boat-load of likable players on this Reds roster, and they definitely seem to enjoy playing with each other. But none of that will matter if the Reds pull a classic Cincinnati flameout in the first round.
On the other hand, this is still the team that was expected to be among the best in the league before the season, except now they’ve gone through the wars together. The Reds have a lot going for them, as noted by one analyst who said, “This team should terrify the National League.”
The Reds have been giving their fans nightmares at this time of the year for a quarter of a century now. Wouldn’t it be nice if, just this once, the Reds gave those bad dreams to the rest of the league?