As the calendar turns to September this week, the familiar rhythms of late summer transition to the energetic thrum of playoff baseball. You remember playoff baseball, right? Well, against every expectation, the Cincinnati Reds find themselves in the heart of this National League playoff cacophony, dancing to a tune few imagined they’d be privy to.
Let’s rewind for a moment. Last year, the Reds suffered a staggering 100 losses, so to utter their name in the same breath as “playoff contention” this season seemed nearly blasphemous a few short months ago. Yet here they stand, a testament to baseball’s inherent unpredictability. Guided by a group of prodigious rookies that seemed to inject the spirit of the Big Red Machine into the club’s veins—OK, that might be overstating the case a bit, I concede—and buoyed by a fiery 12-game winning streak back in June, Cincinnati has been exchanging blows with Milwaukee and (lately) Chicago to reign supreme in the NL Central Division. The kind of baseball drama we’ve been praying for in recent years.
The bad news? If the season ended today, the Reds would not be in the playoffs. The good news? The season doesn’t end today!
Entering play this week, the Reds had drifted to six games behind the Brewers in the division, the first time they’d been that far out of first place since the first week of June. But they were only a game and a half behind Arizona for the final Wild Card spot and two games behind the Cubs for the second slot. Yes, the same Arizona Diamondbacks who just defeated the Redlegs in three out of four games. But that’s behind us! Onward and upward, or something like that.
Of course, the Reds aren’t the only team trying to chase down the Diamondbacks, Cubs, and Phillies, the reigning NL champs who are currently the third Wild Card team. The Giants were tied with Cincinnati entering Monday, and the surprising Marlins were just a game and a half behind. That’s six teams battling for three available playoff spots.
Do the Reds have a chance? Certainly. But if they plan to punch a ticket to the MLB postseason for the first time since the COVID-shortened 2020 season, they’ll have to pick up the pace sooner rather than later. I want to be optimistic since this season has been so much fun, but in the interest of complete honesty, there are a few things I need to mention.
First of all, the Reds are only 18-23 since the All-Star break. That’s not great. The offense that had carried the team through the hot stretch in June and July has been struggling lately, at least partly because of injuries to key personnel. Jake Fraley, Jonathan India, and Joey Votto are all on the injured list, and the Reds announced yesterday that Matt McLain, the club’s most consistent offensive performer since his promotion from Triple-A, would be joining them on the 10-day IL with a strained oblique. Also not great.
In addition, the defense has looked pretty shabby in recent days. Some of that’s because the Reds are depending on so many rookies—especially on the infield—and by definition rookies are still learning the ropes. It’s also late in the season, and some of these kiddos are looking a little tired. That’s par for the course when your professional baseball team depends on so many guys who are barely out of diapers.
Then there’s the pitching, which will also be an issue for the Reds down the stretch, just as we feared after General Manager Nick Krall’s decision to stand pat at the trade deadline. At the time, his defenders pinned their hopes on the much-anticipated return of Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo after the July 31 deadline. That’s just as good as a trade, right?
But pitching, as we all know, is a delicate art. Greene has had a rocky re-entry; his ERA in his first two starts is 17.55 after allowing 13 earned runs in six and two-thirds innings. Meanwhile, Lodolo’s recent rehab setbacks might sideline him for the remainder of the season. On a brighter note, Graham Ashcraft seems to have found his groove, impressing with a 2.39 ERA over 11 starts since the close of June. Unfortunately, starters other than Ashcraft have an ERA above 7.00 in August.
I’m not trying to be negative, I promise. The Reds weren’t even supposed to be in the mix this season, so fans can be justifiably happy about how our team has performed this season no matter what happens. The question now is whether Cincinnati can figure out a way to get across the finish line. And, to that point, there is a bit of good news: By one measure, the Reds have the seventh-easiest schedule in all of baseball the rest of the way. Among those jostling for a playoff spot, only the Brewers and Cubs have an easier slate, so Cincinnati controls its own destiny in some ways. In fact, 17 of the Reds’ final 20 games are against teams currently below .500.
This team has defied expectations all season long. Would anyone be surprised if they shocked the baseball world and became the first Reds team to advance in the playoffs since 1995?
OK, yes, that would be a bit of a stunner. But I’m not betting against it. Hope springs eternal.
Chad Dotson helms Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His newsletter about Cincinnati sports can be found at chaddotson.com. He’s @dotsonc on Twitter.