Fans of any stripe tend to be a cynical bunch, not only in sports but everywhere. Take, for example, the film industry. I love movies. Adore them. In terms of my passions, film is right up there with the Reds and, I don’t know, bacon, I guess. And if you watch enough movies, occasionally you’ll get a feeling in the middle of one that you’ve seen it before. Not that you’ve seen that exact movie, but something very similar.
I remember years ago sitting in a dark theater watching what seemed like another crime thriller. It was good, I was enjoying it, but I kept getting the nagging feeling that it was just like every other heist film I’d ever seen. And then, right at the very end, there was a surprising twist: the identity of Keyser Söze was revealed, and I sank back into my chair in amazement. I went back to see it again the next night.
Through 44 games of this abbreviated 60-game season, your Cincinnati Reds looked like The Usual Suspects, didn’t they? Yet another season that began with promise had sunk inevitably into chaos, with players underperforming and the Reds failing to live up to preseason expectations. I mean, we’ve seen that movie before, right? We know how it ends.
But then there was a plot twist! Last week, the Reds lost two of three to the Cubs, dropping their record to 19-25, good for fourth place in the National League Central, six and a half games back. They hadn’t won a series since August 7-9, and time was rapidly running out.
Enter Luis Castillo. In the first game of a weekend series last Friday, he pitched a dazzling two-hit complete game to lead the Reds past the Cardinals. A small sign of life at the time, but it was followed by Cincinnati winning six of seven games, including a five-game winning streak that lifted them to within one game of .500.
More importantly, as we head into the next-to-last weekend of the regular season, the Reds are in second place, which would make them the No. 6 seed in the expanded 2020 playoffs. How did we get here?
One thing that hasn’t changed is the outstanding starting pitching, highlighted by Castillo’s return to form. In the next start after his complete game gem, La Piedra tossed seven shutout innings to cement a sweep of the Pirates. The Reds have also seen great starts from Trevor Bauer and Michael Lorenzen (of all people) during this late-season resurgence.
Finally, however, the bullpen and the offense began to resemble the units that we expected prior to Opening Day. Raisel Iglesias has been lights-out lately; he hasn’t surrendered a single hit (and just one walk) in his last four appearances. He picked up three saves and a win in those four outings and, for the first time in a long while, has resembled the Iglesias who, not so long ago, was one of the best closers in baseball.
The pen has also been boosted by the presence of newly-acquired Archie Bradley. Acquired at the trade deadline, he’s pitched in five games for the Reds and has yet to allow a run. Combined with Amir Garrett, who picked up his first career save this week, the Reds all of a sudden have three relief studs for late-game situations.
The real story is the offense. After struggling all season long (and suffering through a historically unlucky stretch, as we discussed last week), the bats finally woke up. The Reds are averaging more than five runs a game over the past seven contests. Nowhere is the turnaround more evident than with Shogo Akiyama, who has started to look comfortable in his first taste of baseball in the states.
In his last 18 games, Akiyama is hitting .327 with a brilliant .478 on-base percentage. He’s given the Reds the reliable threat at the top of the order they’ve been missing all season. With Eugenio Suarez returning to form (.294/.400/.598 in the past week) and Joey Votto discovering his power stroke again (three homers during that span), the lineup has clicked for the first time all year.
We’ve always known that this silly 2020 season, with the short schedule and expanded playoffs, was going to be bizarre. Even as we’ve been documenting the often-embarrassing play of this year’s Reds, we’ve always tried to note that things could change at any time. After all, eight teams in each league will make the playoffs.
The Reds have had precisely one good week all season long, but it couldn’t have come at a better time. They are legitimately in a playoff race for the first time in years. Sure, it’s a watered-down playoffs, but who cares? We’ve been waiting a long time for a September with meaningful baseball in Cincinnati.
Nine games to go, and things are about to get tougher for the good guys. The Chicago White Sox roll into the Queen City this weekend toting a robust offense that has them sitting with the best record in the American League. After a three-game set with Milwaukee, the Redlegs finish the campaign in Minnesota against a Twins team that’s been among the best AL squads the past couple of seasons.
There is work left to do, but if you can believe it, the Cincinnati Reds are in the thick of a playoff race. Maybe the script will end with our hearts being broken once again. We’ll know soon. Right now, however, my eyes are glued to the screen. This movie just got far more interesting.
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.