Don’t let last three games mar memories of previous 164
Everything was going so well. The Reds had overcome an injury to their ace Johnny Cueto just eight pitches in to their first playoff game, but behind a gritty effort by Mat Latos and the bullpen earned their first playoff win in 17 years. Then Bronson Arroyo pitched the game of his career in a blowout game 2 win. The team with the best home record in baseball came home needing to win just one game.
We all know what happened next. Homer Bailey pitched another gem, but the offense couldn’t manage more than one hit after the first inning in a hard-fought loss in game 3. Then Mike Leake, replacing Cueto, got hit early and often in a blowout. Suddenly, facing the pressure of a win-or-go-home Game 5, Latos stayed in a pitch too long and gave up a grand slam to Buster Posey. You could hear the air coming out of Reds Country. The team fought back, like they did all season, but stranded the tying runs in the sixth, seventh, eight, and ninth innings. Somehow, it was the Giants and not the Reds advancing to the NLCS.
There’s no denying that this was a choke. Only four times in the division series era had a team won the first two games and then lost three straight. None of those teams played the final three games at home. The Reds had an opportunity to advance to a long-awaiting NLCS, and let it slip through their fingers. It can’t get much worse (Well, yes it could. We could live in the North Side of Chicago. Or Cleveland).
And yet the sun still rose today. General Manager Walt Jocketty now has some tough decisions to make to get the team over the hump, starting with the manager position. Dusty Baker’s contract expired after yesterday’s loss, and his return is up in the air. From all indications the two parties are on the verge of an extension, which after yesterday’s loss will receive mixed responses. Any fan who tries to deny that Dusty had little to do with the team winning 97 games is crazy, but the poor man now has three heartbreaking playoff collapses on his resume. TBS said yesterday that Baker is now 3-9 in his career in games in which his team has the opportunity to advance.
In addition to the managing position, the team has several items on their offseason wish list. Find a leadoff hitter. Fix the center field disaster. Re-sign Ryan Ludwick. Beef up the bench. And figure out once and for all what to do with Aroldis “Shama-lama-ding-dong” Chapman.
Former Braves General Manager John Schuerholz, who endured many October heartbreaks, once said that the postseason is a total crapshoot. More than any other sport, baseball’s playoffs are determined by different factors as the regular season. You win your division by having a deep pitching rotation, roster depth, avoiding serious injuries, and staying motivated for 162 games. You win the World Series by having one or two lock-down aces, clutch hitting, and luck. The Reds had an ace for eight pitches, haven’t had clutch hitting all year, and their luck expired on the flight home to CVG.
In the coming days, my memories of the season will be the last three miserable days. But as I have more time to reflect on 2012, my memories will be much more positive. I will remember young players like Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, and Todd Frazier growing up in front of our eyes. I will remember 11 walk-off wins. I will remember packed houses celebrating a sweep of the hated Cardinals, with former Cards Ryan Ludwick and Scott Rolen delivering the winning hits on back-to-back nights. I will remember the team going 33-16 in Joey Votto’s absence, with a different hero coming through every night. I will remember Todd Frazier hitting home runs with no hands, and gaining momentum for the Rookie of the Year award by willing to play wherever he was needed. I will remember coming back from a 6-0 deficit against Arizona, winning 7-6, and then going on a ten game winning streak. I will remember Marty Brennamen shaving his head. I will remember Homer Bailey pitching the first no hitter in 22 years.
And most importantly, I will remember 97 wins, the most in my lifetime, and the second playoff appearance in three years, the first time that’s happened here since the 1970s.
Five months until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training. I can’t wait.