Who Is the Reds’ Starting Pitcher in the Wild Card Game?

A long-suffering Reds fan dreams of the playoffs and argues for a surprising starter to take the mound in a must-win game.

Picture this: It’s October 5 and there’s a chill in the air, even in southern California. The Los Angeles Dodgers, the defending World Series champs, are hosting the NL Wild Card game. We move to the bottom half of the first inning, and your Cincinnati Reds—after qualifying for the playoffs in a thrilling September pennant race—jog out onto the playing field at Chavez Ravine, perhaps better known as historic Dodger Stadium.

The final player to climb the steps of the Reds dugout and step onto the field is Cincinnati’s starting pitcher in the single most important game of the season to this point. Who do you see in your mind’s eye when you’re picturing that special moment for your favorite team?

Listen, I’m not going to get too far ahead of myself here in the digital pages of Cincinnati Magazine. The Reds have done nothing but break our hearts for more than three decades now, so there’s no reason to expect that they’ll do anything different this year. But the ol’ Redlegs are in the thick of a playoff race, and there are reasons for optimism.

First of all, as we discussed last month, the schedule is kind to the Reds over the last six weeks of the season. Certainly, they’ll have to take care of business in these games, but 25 of their 42 remaining contests will be against Miami, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Washington—four of the five worst teams in the National League. The opportunity is there.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati’s primary competition for the second Wild Card spot, the San Diego Padres, have been scuffling a bit lately and are clinging to a 1.5 game lead over the Reds. (Milwaukee is not giving an inch in the NL Central race, maintaining a 7.5 game lead over our local guys.) Even better, in comparison to the Reds, the Padres have a brutal schedule down the stretch. Check out this analysis from Zach Kram at The Ringer:

By the schedule-agnostic projections, the Padres are expected to land at 90.2 wins, with the Reds at 85.9—a gap of four-plus games. Yet after accounting for schedule, the Padres’ projection falls to 88.7 wins, while the Reds’ rises to 87.5—cutting the gap to just about one. …

[The] list of “gimme” games supplies supporting analysis for the broader conclusions drawn above. The Cincinnati vs. San Diego race stands out again: The Reds are scheduled to play a whopping 19 more gimme games, comprising 44 percent of their remaining slate. They can feast on nine games against the Pirates in September alone. The Padres, meanwhile, have zero remaining gimmes.

Sure, there are no guarantees, but the Redlegs are in a better spot than they’ve enjoyed since 2013. (I’m not going to count last year, when practically every team in the league qualified for the post-season.) You officially have permission to feel optimistic about the Reds. So I’m going to take a moment to dream a bit today.

On twitter dot com over the weekend, someone posed this question: Who starts Game 1 of the playoffs if the Reds qualify? I think there’s a clear answer, but it’s a really interesting question that gives us an opportunity to discuss three pretty great pitchers—one of whom you may not have realized was doing so well.

Let’s start with the obvious choice: Cincinnati’s no-hit hero Wade Miley. No, seriously! Miley is a former All-Star who’s had a really solid career, but no one could have predicted that he’d be the ace of a good Reds pitching staff. Yet that’s what he has been; after seven shutout innings against the Cubs on Monday night (four hits, seven strikeouts, one walk), Miley paces the Reds with a 10-4 record and a 2.84 ERA. On a team that features three of the best hitters in the league (Jesse Winker, Nick Castellanos, Joey Votto), he actually leads the club in wins above replacement, with 5.8. That’s the second highest total for any pitcher in baseball. It’s incredible.

So Miley should start game one, right? Not so fast. What about Tyler Mahle? Cincinnati’s 26-year-old stud has built on his breakout success in 2020’s shortened season by posting a 10-3 record with a 3.58 ERA. (He’s also second on the club in WAR, with 4.0). Sure, his overall numbers aren’t as good as his veteran teammate’s, but let’s remember the specifics of this particular dream. The Reds are playing on the road in this Wild Card game, right?

Well, Mahle has started 13 games away from Great American Ball Park, and he’s 7-1 with a 1.86 ERA in them. Those are simply dazzling numbers. Miley has unquestionably been good in road games (3-2, 3.39 ERA), but Mahle has been spectacular.

As usual, however, I’m going to zig when you think I should zag. It’s undeniable that Miley and Mahle have been brilliant, and yet, when Reds manager David Bell is faced with this decision (I’m still dreaming!), he shouldn’t pick either one to start Game 1 of the Reds’ inevitable run to the World Series. He should hand the baseball to Luis Castillo.

Yes, I’m talking about the same Luis Castillo that had a 7.22 ERA through two months of the 2021 season and who is just 6-12 with a 4.51 ERA for the entire campaign. While the rest of baseball hasn’t been paying attention, however, he’s been one of the best pitchers in the game since the calendar turned to June.

Before a rough start against Cleveland last week, Castillo was second in the NL with a 1.91 ERA since June 1, and hitters were batting just .199 against him. Even with that bad start included, Castillo has been one of the best pitchers in the league over the last two-plus months, and he seems to be getting better with every outing. In his last start, versus Philadelphia, he uncorked the two fastest pitches of his entire career.

We’ve known for a while that hitters around the league acknowledge that Castillo has some of the best “stuff” in the game. (Remember how he dazzled everyone in the 2019 All-Star Game?) Certainly, I won’t complain if Bell decides to send Miley or Mahle to the mound in that initial playoff game. The Reds actually have an abundance of riches in the rotation, and I haven’t even mentioned Sonny Gray, who is finally fully healthy. But give me Castillo in that important spot.

For my money, Castillo gives the Reds the best chance of taking a must-win game in a Wild Card scenario. He’s just the best pitcher on this team right now, and that’s saying something. Hey, you can let me dream, right?

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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