The Reds Stumble to Find the Playoffs’ Promised Land

Luckily, while Cincinnati has dropped six straight series, their competition for the final Wild Card spot are also losing.

Nathan Drake is a treasure hunter. Once upon a time, he set out on a quest to locate El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. On his long, difficult journey, he faced many trials and tribulations, including mercenaries, anti-aircraft fire, pirates, and monstrous mutated humans. Throughout it all, however, Drake kept his eyes on the prize: finding the promised land.

Meanwhile, a criminal syndicate is trying to find El Dorado as well. Drake fights them face to face along the way, but it’s a race to the finish line, with each facing their own obstacles. Drake ultimately reaches El Dorado first, and that’s when things get really dicey. One of his foes has mutated, thanks to a sarcophagus containing a mummy infected with an airborne mutagenic virus, and Drake has to engage in mortal combat even after reaching his goal. (Don’t you hate when that happens?)

Drake has finally reached his dream, a place he’d fantasized about for years, only to face death and dismemberment as soon as he gets there. What was the point?

In case you forgot, this is a column about the Cincinnati Reds. The fact that I just described the plot of an Uncharted video game could be seen as evidence that the Reds have played so poorly since I encouraged you to “Enjoy the Moment!” that I couldn’t bring myself to think about the lousy product we’ve seen on the field. But that’s not quite it.

So many epic books, movies, and video games are about a quest, with a prize at the end that makes all the suffering worth it. In the 2021 version of the National League playoff chase, the reward for winning the second Wild Card spot is a date with one of the two best teams in the league, the Dodgers or the Giants. Given the evidence of the last few weeks, it’s only reasonable to ask: Does anyone really want to win this thing?

The Reds certainly don’t act like they want to play in that Wild Card game. On August 22, after a sweep of the Marlins, Cincinnati was 69-57 and held a one game lead over San Diego in the NL Wild Card race. They also led the Cardinals by 4.5 games and the Phillies by five. The Redlegs were in the driver’s seat.

Since that day, Cincinnati has lost 12 out of 18 games and dropped six consecutive series, four of which were against sub-.500 teams. They’ve looked like a mess on the field, scuffling at the precise moment they should have been on a triumphant march to the postseason. Season over, right?

No! Somehow, some way, as they woke up this morning, the Reds still had a half-game lead for that second Wild Card spot. What’s going on here?

Well, no one else in the league acts like they’re particularly motivated to go play the Dodgers or Giants either. San Diego has won just seven of their last 23 games, including getting swept in Los Angeles over the weekend. It’s been a brutal stretch, but they were actually able to gain in the standings, and the Pads are right behind the Reds.

What about the other teams? Along with San Diego, St. Louis is also a half-game game out of that final Wild Card spot, and they’ve actually won five of their last six games, including a series victory over Cincinnati this past weekend. Of course, that’s the only series the Cardinals have won in a full month.

What about the Phillies, 2.5 games back? No, they don’t seem interested either, losers of seven of their last 10. Philadelphia seemed to bottom out over the weekend, losing three of four games at home in an often-hapless performance against Colorado.

I guess we could say that the New York Mets are showing a little spunk. They’ve won 10 of 16 games to claw their way back to just below .500. Maybe they want to win? Perhaps, though they’ve been in a state of chaos all season long. These days, it seems like they’d rather just fight with their own fans.

The point here is that this Wild Card spot is ready and waiting for any team that wants to grab it, but none of the top contenders are reaching for the brass ring. It’s almost like they don’t want to face the final boss—to extend the video game metaphor past the breaking point—potentially the world champion Dodgers.

Which brings us back to where we started a few weeks ago. There is no reason whatsoever that the Reds can’t take control of this race once again. As observers have noted for months, the Reds have the easiest schedule down the stretch of any of the contenders. That remains true, though that “easy” schedule doesn’t seem to have helped the club so far.

Fully half of Cincinnati’s remaining games (nine of 18) are against the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have already lost 91. Three more are against the Nationals, who currently sit 25 games below .500. The Reds have won 10 of 13 against those two teams so far in 2021, including a 9-1 record against Pittsburgh. The opportunity is there for the local nine. But can they grasp it?

Meanwhile, after getting swept by the Dodgers, the Padres have to go to San Francisco next as part of a 10-game road trip. In fact, 13 of San Diego’s 19 remaining games are against the two best teams in the league (Dodgers and Giants), the only two teams in all of Major League Baseball who have already won more than 90 games.

So what about the Cardinals, Phillies, and Mets? If we’re honest, the only answer is: Who knows? Philadelphia has a schedule that looks as enticing as Cincinnati’s, but they’re in as much disarray as any team in the league right now. St. Louis and New York haven’t really looked like contenders all season long.

For what it’s worth, all the mathematical models believe that, despite the recent stretch of poor play, the Reds have the best playoff odds of any team in the race. FiveThirtyEight actually says that Cincinnati has a 51 percent chance of making that Wild Card game; San Diego is next at 21 percent.

It’s there for the taking. At this point, however, all it will take is a single hot stretch for any of these teams to take control of the race and reach El Dorado. The question is: Do they really want to enter the city of gold and find Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, and the Dodgers waiting for them?

Let’s cross that solid gold bridge when the Reds get to it.

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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