The Reds Are Well Positioned at the All-Star Break

Seven games over the next two weeks against division-leading Milwaukee will tell whether the Reds are actual playoff contenders.

If you’re like me, you wish the Cincinnati Reds would have signed Adam Dunn to a three-day contract for the sole purpose of letting him be the designated hitter in the current series against the Kansas City Royals. Wait, that’s not how I wanted to start this column. Let me try again.

If you’re like me, you’ve been having a lot of fun watching the Reds in recent weeks. We have just passed the halfway point of the Major League Baseball season, and all of a sudden Cincinnati looks like actual contenders for a playoff spot. What a time to be alive.

Entering the final week before the All-Star break, the Reds stand at 44–40 and have climbed up to second place in the National League Central after spending most of the first half firmly mired in fourth. Since May 29, when the Reds hit their 2021 low-water mark at six games under .500, they’ve gone 22–12. For Reds fans, the highlight of the last month was almost certainly the sweep of the Chicago Cubs at Great American Ball Park over the weekend.

The Reds were seven games out of first on May 29, and, unfortunately, still six games out of first after the Cubs sweep. Though they’ve barely made up ground in the division race (more on that in a moment), Cincinnati is only 4.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot with almost half a season to make up ground. If you’re looking for reasons to be excited about a baseball team (despite the fact that ownership could not care less), the Reds have given you plenty of fuel for the fire.

Only two teams in the league (the Dodgers and the Giants) have scored more runs than Cincinnati’s offense, despite the fact that Reds “shortstops” have been less productive than any other team in the league, though Pittsburgh fans might argue the point. The Dynamic Duo of Nick Castellanos and Jesse Winker—both of whom will be starting in the All-Star Game for the first time—are a big reason why, obviously. Less obvious has been (a) the resurgence of Joey Votto (more on that next week), (b) a catching tandem of Tucker Barnhart and rookie Tyler Stephenson that’s been better than almost any in the league, and (c) a steady-as-she-goes performance by the starting rotation.

Perhaps the most unlikely reason behind the Reds resurgence the last couple of weeks has been a virtuoso performance by the no-name group of Reds relievers. During the three-game Cubs series for example, Cincinnati won three one-run games in which they trailed at some point. The Reds were able to come back in each game because the bullpen allowed just four hits and two walks in 10.1 scoreless innings.

It’s a performance unlikely to be repeated over the long-term (for reasons we’ve discussed previously), but the pen’s hot streak couldn’t have come at a better time. In the last 10 days, Reds relievers have posted an ERA of 1.20, second-best in the majors. Sure, their full-season ERA is 5.22 (second-worst in the league) but with Michael Lorenzen, Tejay Antone, and Lucas Sims due to return to the roster in the coming weeks, at least there is hope that the bullpen can approximate something close to average. It’s the key to Cincinnati’s chances in the second half.

I wish I could give you hope that team management will acquire relief help at the trade deadline, which is three and a half weeks away. But GM Nick Krall has given little hope that he’ll have flexibility to add to the roster, and owner Bob Castellini remains asleep at the wheel.

If we’re looking for reasons to be seriously optimistic about Cincinnati’s chances down the stretch, the remaining schedule should be at the top of that list. The Reds are chasing the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central, and the reason Cincinnati hasn’t been able to close the gap is because Milwaukee has refused to lose in recent days; the Brew Crew had won 11 in a row before losing their last two.

But the Reds will have a golden opportunity to gain ground on the division leaders beginning this week. After the series against the Royals, the Reds travel to Milwaukee for four games. Then, after the All-Star break, the Brewers will come to Cincinnati for three more contests. That’s seven games in a row between teams currently separated in the standings by seven games. I don’t think I have to spell how important these games will be, in terms of setting expectations for the second half.

It’s important for Cincinnati not to lose ground, at the very least, against the team to beat in the division because the schedule begins to look pretty good for the Redlegs thereafter. Cincinnati will not travel back to the west coast for the remainder of the season. In fact, the Reds only have three games left against any team in the National League West (three vs. the defending champion Dodgers at GABP in the season’s final weeks).

Here’s why that’s important. At the moment, only four teams in the National League have more wins than Cincinnati’s 44. One of those, obviously, is Milwaukee. The other three? Yep, you guessed it—all NL West teams, the Giants, Dodgers, and Padres. The fact that the Reds are almost finished with those clubs until October should have you breathing a sigh of relief. In the last three-plus weeks alone, the Reds are 14–3 against every team not named “Padres.”

On the other hand, though they’ve struggled against Western division competition, the Reds are a robust 22–12 against Central division opponents (including 5–4 against Milwaukee). Most of their remaining games will come against teams inside the division.

Even better, the Reds will play an inordinate number of games the rest of the way against some of the league’s also-rans. Over the season’s last two months, Cincinnati will play 22 games against Miami, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh, all teams currently in last place in their respective divisions and a combined 44.5 games out of first. In fact, the Reds will face the NL Central cellar-dwelling Pirates in nine of their final 18 games. The opportunity to finish strong is certainly within Cincinnati’s grasp.

Despite a roller-coaster start to the campaign, the stars may just be aligning perfectly for an exciting second half of the season for the Reds, with a playoff race well within reach. With or without Adam Dunn.

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.

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