It’s an Emotional Final Week for the Reds

An unexpectedly competitive season winds down with Cincinnati still in the playoff hunt, laying it on the line for Joey Votto.
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The good news is that the Cincinnati Reds enter the final week of the MLB campaign with a fighter’s chance of making the playoffs. After last year’s historic disaster of a season, the fact that I can write those words after the Redlegs have played 156 games continues to be the most preposterous thing I’ve seen in the 10 seasons I’ve been scribbling away here at Cincinnati Magazine.

The bad news? Last weekend’s brutal series against the Pirates was almost the death knell for Cincinnati’s playoff chances. Friday’s 7-5 loss, thanks to uneven defense and shoddy bullpen work, meant that the Reds were officially eliminated from the race for the NL Central division title. That left only the Wild Card, where the Reds were still 1.5 games behind the Cubs (and a half-game behind the Marlins) in the battle for the final playoff spot.

When the Reds took a 9-0 lead after three innings on Saturday, it gave us a moment to dream. After a bullpen meltdown resulted in a stomach-turning 13-12 loss, however, it seemed all hopes for the playoffs were lost. Turn out the lights, the party’s over.

And that’s still probably the case. But the Reds rebounded on Sunday with a 4-2 victory that turned into Joey Votto Fan Appreciation Day. So what does this club need to do to get Joey back to the playoffs for the first time in a decade? [I choose to forget 2020, in every way, including that short season and expanded playoff structure.]

Well, they probably need to win all five remaining games. Sure, all five are road games—at Cleveland and at St. Louis—but that’s not such a big deal, is it? They won 12 games in a row back in June. Five games should be easy!

At 80-77, the Reds head into Tuesday’s series opener against Cleveland 2.5 games out of the playoffs. Chicago and Arizona, at 82-74, are tied for the second and third NL Wild Card positions, with the Marlins one game back (and 1.5 ahead of Cincinnati). Four teams, two playoff spots.

If you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic, I have a few. First of all, no team in baseball has a better road record than the Reds since May 26. Only seven teams all season long have bettered Cincinnati’s 42-34 mark away from Great American Ball Park. And the teams Cincinnati will be playing over these final games are the Guardians and Cardinals. Two at Cleveland, three at St. Louis, against teams that are a collective 29.5 games out of first, both playing out the string.

And if the Reds can somehow get on a hot streak, they have this in their pocket: Cincinnati holds the tiebreaker advantage over both Chicago and Arizona (though not Miami, alas). I’m dreaming of a tie between the Reds, Cubs, and Diamondbacks with one game to play. How tense would that final game of the season be?

Flame-throwing right-hander Hunter Greene will take the mound in the opener against Ohio’s worst big league baseball team on Tuesday evening. In his most recent start, he struck out a career-high 14 batters, though he was forced to settle for his second consecutive no-decision. It’ll be his first outing against Cleveland, not to mention that it’s the first time in his young career that Greene will be pitching with so much on the line.

The arrival of autumn carries something of a bittersweet tang for hardcore Reds fans who have watched the hometown nine surprise, delight, and maybe, in the end, narrowly betray their heart’s great hope. To me, it’s like watching a beloved novel unfold, every chapter filled with laughter and unforeseen thrills—and quite a few tense moments—only to find oneself, with a mere few pages left, bracing for an ending that might not satisfy.

This summer, the Reds, with an injection of youthful energy, played not just with skill but with an infectious joie de vivre that drew even the cynical back into the fold of fandom. As the final few games approach and the odds lengthen, we can only hope for a baseball miracle in these closing pages. If ever there were a time for the unexpected, for the ball to take a fortunate bounce or for fortune to smile just once more, it would be now. Aren’t Reds fans owed a little good fortune after all these years of misery?

Moreso, doesn’t Joey Votto deserve the October spotlight? Last month in these digital pages, I argued that the Reds should pick up Votto’s contract option and bring him back for one more season. I stand by that column, but the Reds have not announced their intentions. So Sunday’s game could possibly have been Votto’s final home game at Great American Ball Park. And it was an emotional one.

As he strode to the plate for his first at-bat, “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones—Votto’s walkup music for many seasons—echoed around the stadium. And then the fans rose, almost in unison, for a standing ovation that caused Joey to get visibly emotional. Later, in his final at-bat, he drilled a single into center field. When he was lifted for a pinch-runner, the crowd rose again and wouldn’t sit until Votto emerged from the dugout for a curtain call.

He’s the best Reds player in at least a generation, and some would argue that he’s the best Red of all time. After the final home game of the season, Votto wrote a reflective piece that made me realize he’s not only a better hitter than I ever dreamed of being, he may also be a better writer. Whatever your opinion of him, he’s almost certainly a future Hall of Famer and a club legend.

I hope 2023 isn’t the end of the road for Votto. But if it is, I hope he goes out on a cool October night, in a playoff game, after a brilliant sprint to the postseason in the closing days of the regular season.

The final week is upon us. And we still have hope. Enjoy it.

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.

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