PITTSBURGH – The Cincinnati Reds of 2013 are limping into the playoffs.
They didn’t win the National League Central Division, they’re not scoring runs and they’re giving up homers.
Can the Reds turn it around?
Can they forget recent playoff disappointments?
Will Johnny Cueto put the Reds on his back and lead them past the Pirates?
We’ll find out in the National League Wild Card Game at PNC Park Tuesday night (8:07 p.m. EDT on TBS).
A not-so-funny thing happened to the Reds on the way to the playoffs. Oh, they made it. They were good enough.
But it was a struggle with every missed step.
Too many chances seemed to slip away.
Unlike a year ago, the magic of a Cincinnati summer came up a little bit short.
Let’s go back to the warmth of Goodyear, Ariz., for spring training. Back where the Reds regrouped and rededicated themselves to undoing the disappointment of 2012.
You remember that – win two in San Francisco, lose three in Cincinnati. It still stung five months later.
“If that didn’t sting everybody in that clubhouse, including the fan base and the whole organization, then something’s wrong,” said reliever Sam LeCure.
“We just didn’t get to the World Series. We just failed,” said second baseman Brandon Phillips.
Opening Day provided not just the start of a new quest, it opened myriad new questions.
Left fielder Ryan Ludwick went down and out right away. He was gone until August.
The ace was barely played. Johnny Cueto twisted and turned and disabled himself.
The setup turned out to be a letdown. Sean Marshall wasn’t much of a factor.
Still the team contended and fans came to the riverfront in record numbers, singing the songs, dancing the dances and eating free pizzas every time Reds pitchers struck out at least 11 batters.
More than 20 times in all.
Bob Castellini had built a top club, but he could never be sure exactly where it was pointed.
Other factors emerged:
The Cardinals had reloaded.
The Pirates were back from the dead.
In the standings, the Reds were always a slot or two behind. That was true despite another great effort from the starting rotation.
Mat Latos gained maturity.
Bronson Arroyo maintained consistency.
Mike Leake brought reliability.
And Homer Bailey made history again with his second no-hitter in two seasons.
The Reds were stellar up front and they remained nearly airtight at the back.
Aroldis Chapman stayed a closer, keeping fans with one eye on the gun and the other on the final out.
The major acquisition, Shin-Soo Choo, was everything the Reds had hoped for and probably a little more.
But for others, the stats slipped.
The fact is, the Reds just had trouble scoring runs.
A season of anticipation gave way too often to exasperation.
The Reds could put em on, move em over, but time and again couldn’t get them in.
Still, the Reds weren’t ordinary. Their talent holds up well against just about any other team in the league.
Which is what we saw on the field in Goodyear – a 90-win team.
It was exactly that, with extra motivation because of how 2012 ended.
Joey Votto: “Just thinking about the playoffs, getting to the playoffs. But I don’t think we’ll be able to get over it until we have an opportunity to make up for it, hopefully next October.”
The Reds will play again in October. Whether they will erase that memory and create some new ones remains to be seen.