The Reds Might Just Sneak On In

A series win this weekend over the Cubs puts the Reds in playoff contention.
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This past weekend, after Alex Wood pitched masterfully in a win over the first-place Atlanta Braves, Reds first baseman Joey Votto put into words what some of us have been quietly thinking for a while. In a joyful post-game interview, he said, “Hopefully, the adjustments will carry to those winning moments and we play really great ball down the stretch and we’re competitive deep into September. You know, sneak on in. Sneak on in.”

 

Votto is talking about adjustments he’s made at the plate recently; the previous two weeks, he stopped choking up on the bat as often and made a change to his stance, and the results were a slash line of .316/.365/.526 with three home runs. Notably, he’s also talking about sneaking into the playoffs. Seriously, the playoffs. He just said it. Out loud. But is it realistic?

I’ve been making the case all season long that these Reds are significantly improved—and they are, as you’ve noticed—but essentially they’ve been a .500 team. Since beginning the season 1-8, Cincinnati is 53-50 but has spent most of the year trapped in the cellar of the National League Central. They’ve never really been an also-ran in the league, thanks to a tight division race, but the Reds have never really been in the race either.

In last week’s analysis of the Reds’ trade deadline action, I finished with this:

Anyway, the Reds are still hanging around the pennant race as we head into the dog days of August, which is more than we could say for the previous few versions of the club. And if the offensive resurgence is real or even if the individual hitters in this Reds lineup finally start hitting, well, this could be a fascinating second half indeed.

Of course, there’s a big difference between hanging around the race and actually having a shot at playing baseball in October. But Votto isn’t just dreaming. It won’t be easy, but there’s a real path for the Reds to sneak on in to the playoffs.

Currently, Cincinnati sits 4.5 games out of a NL Wild Card spot. With just 50 games remaining, making up that margin will be a tall order, but it’s conceivable. Of more difficulty will be climbing over the six teams ahead of the Reds in that Wild Card race. I’m here to tell you that it could happen, since every single team sitting above the Reds in the standings is seriously flawed.

Take a look at two of those teams ahead of Cincinnati, the Mets and the Giants. As recently as July 24, the Mets were nine games under .500 and 13 games out of first place. Less than two weeks later, they’re 2.5 games out of the Wild Card. Similarly, San Francisco was in dead last place in the NL West until July 15, and at one point they were 12 games under .500. After a stretch in which they won 19 of 24, the Giants are now 3.5 games back in the Wild Card race. These are two clubs that have been objectively worse than the Reds for pretty much the entire 2019 season, but after a couple of good weeks they’re both in the thick of the playoff race.

Can the Reds go on a run of winning baseball like either of those teams? Sure, why not? After all, the stat guys say a team that’s performed like the Reds this year are actually expected to be seven games over .500. That’s an alternate-world fantasy, but it would put them a half-game out of the playoffs, if my rudimentary math skills haven’t failed me.

Importantly, however, the Reds don’t really need to go on a big winning streak starting yesterday. All they really need to do is hang on for dear life for just a little bit longer. Just until August 22 or so.

Just after the All-Star break, Redleg Nation’s Nick Kirby noted that the Reds had played the second-toughest schedule in all of baseball to that point. Then he floated the idea that, if Cincinnati can hang around the playoff race until August 22, things will get substantially easier for the Redlegs.

A quick glance at the Reds’ remaining schedule shows that Kirby is onto something. In fact, I’d push that date up to August 19, when Cincinnati will begin a three-game series at Great American Ball Park against the San Diego Padres, currently the last-place club in the NL West, 22 games out of first. From that point forward, every single series looks winnable, in theory, at least. The Cubs are the only playoff-probable the Reds will face, and Cincinnati has won 7 of 12 games against them this season.

More interesting is that, of the Reds’ final 22 games away from home, 13 are against teams that sit in last place in their division (Pirates, Marlins, Mariners) and zero are against teams that currently occupy one of the playoff spots.

If the Reds can remain on the periphery of the Wild Card race until August 19—and yes, that’s a big “if”—there is a real path to a September full of exciting and meaningful baseball. Of course, they have to get to that date first, but I’m feeling better and better about Cincinnati’s chances of hanging around. There are five big reasons why: the starting rotation.

This weekend, the Cubs will saunter into the Queen City with all their blue-shirted minions. The Reds will be waiting with these arms:
Thursday: Alex Wood
Friday: Sonny Gray
Saturday: Trevor Bauer
Sunday: Luis Castillo

I still find it difficult to believe that the Reds can send out four consecutive All-Star pitchers, but here we are. And that’s why I’m telling you there’s a chance.

Listen, let’s not overestimate Cincinnati’s odds here. The Reds are a solid but flawed team, a .500-ish club. But in this season in which the Wild Card race is more wide open than it’s ever been, with teams ahead of them who are just as flawed, well, I’m giving you permission to dream.

It’s going to require some luck for sure, and a few things will have to fall the Reds’ way. But don’t look now: Cincinnati has won four out of five and eight of the last 11 games. The Reds have won four series and split another during that span. They might just sneak on into the playoffs if they keep this up.

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. He wrote about the 1970s Reds as part of the magazine’s “10 Events That Shaped Cincinnati” package. 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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