Seven years ago this week, Shin-Soo Choo drilled a 10th-inning pitch from Mets reliever Sean Henn off the fence in left-center field at Great American Ball Park, scoring Devin Mesoraco and lifting the Reds to a 3-2 victory. It was Cincinnati’s sixth win in seven games, and with five games remaining the Reds were in second place, just two games behind the Cardinals.
Fortunately, that win also secured at least a wild card spot for the Redlegs, because they proceeded to lose the next five regular season games before the disastrous loss to the Pirates in the NL Wild Card game. I’m not bringing up that game in order to note that this year’s Reds went on a similar tear, winning eight of nine to get into the thick of a playoff race with [checks notes] five games remaining. I’m not suggesting that the Reds are destined to collapse like the ill-fated 2013 version of this team. Quite the opposite, actually.
I bring up 2013 to note that it’s been exactly seven years since the beloved hometown nine has given us anything to get excited about this late in the season. Seven years of frustration, disappointment, and ultimately apathy. Seven long seasons where you might have been better off just ignoring the team entirely. But now, finally, the Reds have clawed their way into a playoff race.
Going into the final weekend of the year, Cincinnati still has a chance of finishing second in the Central division, guaranteeing a spot in this year’s expanded playoff system. Even if they can’t reach second, they’re still in the mix for one of the Wild Card spots (and a number of tiebreaker scenarios favor the Reds, too.) After a mostly-miserable regular season, the Reds have given us a final week we’ve been asking for, filled with meaningful games.
And Reds fans should feel pretty good about it, because this team is going to be tough to beat if they can just crawl across the finish line in one of the playoff spots. How can I state unequivocally that Cincinnati will be a tough opponent for someone in the playoffs, after we just witnessed two months of mostly hapless baseball? I’ll give you three reasons: Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo, and Sonny Gray.
Down the stretch, Castillo has been magnificent. In September, he’s won all four of his starts, allowing just four runs in nearly 29 innings, an ERA of 1.26. In the first game of this week’s crucial series with Milwaukee, Castillo allowed just one run on four hits in 6.2 innings, leading the Reds to a victory that lifted the club above .500 for the first time since Opening Day. His season ERA is now down to 2.86, and there may not be a pitcher on the planet who’s more fun to watch.
On Tuesday night, Gray returned to the rotation (from a back injury) in style, retiring 14 of the first 16 Brewers to hit in a five-inning performance that yielded just two hits and one run. For most of the season, Gray had arguably been the best pitcher in town. In fact, until two rough starts that preceded the stint on the injured list, he was 5-2 with a 1.94 ERA. If he’s fully healthy, there’s no reason to believe he isn’t the same pitcher who finished seventh in Cy Young Award voting a year ago. In other words, he’s an ace.
And then there’s Bauer, who has been nothing short of incredible all season, posting a 1.73 ERA over his first 11 starts. He’s struck out 100 hitters in 73 innings while walking just 17. (He leads the league in both ERA and strikeouts.) Bauer has even thrown two shutouts, the first Reds hurler to accomplish that feat since Johnny Cueto in 2014. (OK, I cheated there; Bauer’s shutouts were of the 2020 seven-inning doubleheader variety. But it’s still pretty good, right?)
Even better, Bauer is a bulldog of the type that has long enchanted a certain breed of Reds fan. An example: On Wednesday night, with the season hanging in the balance, Bauer finally convinced manager David Bell to pitch him on three days rest. And he promptly threw eight innings of dazzling one-run, four-hit baseball in a game the Reds absolutely had to win.
Few teams can boast a big three like Cincinnati’s. Let’s be clear: The Reds would not have been in a position to make this late-season run if it were not for the heroic efforts of the three aces atop their starting rotation.* They held this team together by the seams until the offense began to figure things out in the waning days of the season. And the troika of Bauer/Castillo/Gray should make any potential playoff opponent shake with fear.
*A quick aside: I feel incredibly guilty about leaving Tyler Mahle out of this group. Mahle has had a breakout season at the age of 25, posting a 3.57 ERA over nine games. He’s been very good, and better things are to come. But it’s really not a criticism to say that he’s not been quite as good as Bauer, Castillo, and Gray.
Think about it this way: Cincinnati’s last two Opening Day starters (Castillo and Gray) are both All-Stars. Both have pitched very well this year, especially in big games. And yet neither is likely to start a Game 1 in the playoffs, because they have a teammate who may just win the first Cy Young Award in franchise history.
One year ago, after the Reds finally started to show some signs of life late in the season, Joey Votto had this to say: “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.”
It didn’t happen then, but the 2020 Reds are on the verge of doing just that. Whether they ultimately grab the brass ring of the playoffs or not, let’s tip our caps to the starting rotation who made it possible, even when things seemed hopeless.
So Reds, will you sneak on in? Because—and I’m being serious here—once they actually qualify for the playoffs, a run to the World Series isn’t out of the question. Bauer, Castillo, and Gray stack up very well against the top of any rotation in baseball. This team was built for the playoffs, and I have every expectation that they have some excitement in store for us, if they can just qualify. So, yes, I’m telling you there’s a chance.
Enjoy this weekend (and beyond), Reds fans. You’ve earned 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.