CINCINNATI -- The entire future of the Reds franchise might have been altered if a pitcher hadn’t been goofing around in batting practice, if a veteran player hadn’t made the first out of the game trying to take third base, if manager Dusty Baker had gone with a quicker hook on starter Mat Latos.
But that’s getting a little bit ahead of the story.
It’s easy to define the high point of the Castellini ownership of the Reds. It came Oct. 7, 2012. The Reds had just gone up two games to none on the San Francisco Giants with a 9-0 victory at AT&T Park.
Win one of three at home and the Reds were in the National League Championship Series with a legitimate chance to advance.
They had won 97 games that year. They had deep starting pitching. A solid lineup. A great bullpen.
Of course, it all unraveled.
“I remember it happening quickly,” first baseman Joey Votto said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, we got this. We should win this next game or one of the next couple and be able to chill for a little bit. We’ll have some days off at home. We’ll be in the driver’s seat for the next series.
“Then all of the sudden, it became real, and we’re in Game 5 and (Giants catcher) Buster Posey hits that home run, which was seemingly a nail in the coffin. We rallied to a bit of a late comeback, but the grand slam changed everything.”
The Giants, of course, went on to win the World Series that season. They won another two years later.
Would the Reds have followed the same arc? Impossible to say.
But we do know what has happened since. The last gasp of the good run came the next year when the Reds made the playoffs as a wildcard. But Baker was fired following the season.
Four losing seasons have followed. Each of the last three has ended with 90-plus losses.
Let’s look back on the series.
Game 1: Big win and a big loss -- Cueto
Ace starter Johnny Cueto lasted six pitches. It was stunning to almost everyone. But not to Bronson Arroyo.
“The thing that sticks out in my mind is we’re taking batting practice and Johnny Cueto is going to show me how hard he’s going to swing in the game,” Arroyo said. “He pulls his oblique, although I don’t know at the time.
“He’s taking an extra long time to warm up. Matt Krause, the strength coach, says to me, ‘what’s going on with Johnny? He’s warming up twice as long as usual. He’s sweating like a pig in there.’ I ask him what’s going on. He says he thinks he’s going to be OK. He obviously isn’t OK. He comes out of the game.”
It was potentially a killer blow, losing your ace that quickly, but the way the Reds improvised and prevailed gave them great confidence.
Reliever Sam LeCure took over and pitched 1 2/3 innings. That allowed Latos, the scheduled Game 2 starter, to get ready. Latos went four innings and only allowed a solo home run to Posey.
The Reds took the lead on Brandon Phillips’ two-run homer in the third. Jay Bruce hit a solo shot in the fourth. It was 5-1 by the time the bullpen took over.
It ended 5-2.
“That was a high point,” then pitching coach Bryan Price, now Reds manager, said. “LeCure and Latos gave us five beautiful innings and a chance to take the lead. We salvaged Game 1 when for all intents and purposes it looked like it would go to the Giants.”
But what happened to Cueto would loom large for the Reds later in the series.
Game 2: Bronson brings his A-game
Bronson Arroyo versus Madison Bumgarner.
“He wasn’t thought of as the same Bumgarner he is now back then,” Arroyo said of the Giants ace. “I didn’t think a thing about it.”
Arroyo was as good as he’s ever been. He went seven innings and allowed one hit. He struck out four and walked one.
“I think I had a no-hitter into the sixth. I had good stuff. It reminded me at lot of pitching (for Boston) against Anaheim in ’03 in the ALDS. I had good, crisp stuff. The game went exactly as I wanted it to. I commanded everything.
“I remember the post-game. It was one of the moments you won’t forget for the rest of life. Standing on that big of a stage with (catcher) Ryan Hanigan, one my best friends on the club, the battery holding it down like that. It was fantastic.”
When the Reds got back to town, Arroyo put on a show at the Holy Grail. Some Giant fans were giving him a hard time.
“I told them I’m working harder up here than I did the other night against your boys,” Arroyo said.
But he knew the Reds had work to do.
“The series wasn’t over,” he said. “I was on the flip side when we pulled it out being down 0-2 to Oakland. You still think you’ve got your foot on their throat.”
Giants manager Bruce Bochy felt that way.
“I don’t think the Reds lost three in a row at home all year,” he said. “We knew our backs were against the wall.”
Game 3: A costly base-running gaffe
Homer Bailey was as dominant as Arroyo. He went seven innings, allowed one run on one hit. He walked one and struck out 10.
The Reds, meanwhile, had Giants starter Ryan Vogelsong on the ropes in the first. Brandon Phillips led off with a single. He stole second, but he tried to go to third on the play and Posey threw him out for the first out.
There's no question the inning would have been different if Phillips didn’t violate the never-make-the-first-or-third-out-at-third rule. Zack Cozart walked next. After a Votto flyout, Ryan Ludwick singled, and Bruce singled in Cozart.
The Reds had a 1-0 lead, but what would have been if Phillips hadn’t risked and lost? Vogelsong threw 35 pitches in the inning. He might not have escaped the inning without the gift out.
Bailey’s only struggles came in the third. He hit a batter and walked another to start the inning. The Giants sacrificed the runners over. Angel Pagan tied it with a sacrifice fly.
Vogelsong settled down and gave the Giants five innings. The Reds could do nothing against the bullpen.
Price was getting nervous.
“I think that I knew in Game 3 that Cueto wasn’t going to be able to pitch Game 5, so we’d have to make a decision that was to start (Mike) Leake on 11 days’ rest for Game 4 and bring back Latos for Game 5,” he said. “My feeling was if the Giants won Game 3, they would gain momentum because of the fact that we were going with a pitcher who hadn’t pitched in so long.”
The Giants took the lead in the 10th. Reliever Jonathan Broxton gave up back-to-back singles to Posey and Hunter Pence to start the inning. When he struck out the next two, it looked like he’d get out of it. But the Reds’ defense, so good all year, failed.
The runners advanced on Hanigan’s passed ball with Joaquin Arias at the plate. Then Scott Rolen, an eight-time Gold Glover, booted a ball. Posey scored.
The Reds went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the 10th, and it was a 2-1 series.
“It’s a funny game,” Drew Stubbs said. “One bounce of the ball goes a different way in Game 3. If it goes a different direction, maybe we win that game and it’s us hoisting the trophy that year.”
Pence’s pregame pep talk is often cited as the key to the Giants' turnaround.
“You talk about Pence and the things he said, but we still went out and got one hit that game,” Bochy said. “But because of Vogelsong’s effort (we won). I’m still amazed, especially with how bad we looked at home.”
Game 4: Missing Johnny
This would have been Cueto’s game if he were healthy. The Reds decide to go with Mike Leake instead. He was left off the roster for the series.
Arroyo second-guessed the decision to start Leake then and still does.
“I don’t think we did a good enough job of sniffing out if Johnny could have pitched,” Arroyo said. “They didn’t let him throw. He said he felt pretty good. They took him off the roster and put Leake in there. I didn’t think Leake was the guy for that game at that time. I would have went with Mat Latos on three days’ rest and myself on three days’ rest.
“That wasn’t the call we got. A lot of heads were in meetings all coming together and talking about it. There was a lot swirling around in that heat. I don’t know if we quieted it down enough to make a good solid decision before we got crazy."
Leake kept the Reds in it until the fifth. He gave up two runs in the inning to make 5-2. Jose Arredondo gave up three more in the seventh. The Reds ended up losing 8-3. The series was tied.
Game 5: Too little, too late
Latos was brilliant through four innings. He had retired 11 of 12 going into the fifth.
Gregor Blanco led off the fifth with a single. Brandon Crawford followed with a triple. Latos got pitcher Matt Cain, but Angel Pagan reached on a Cozart error. That made it 2-0.
Latos lost his composure a bit. He walked Marco Scutaro on four pitches. Pablo Sandoval singled to load the bases.
That brought up Posey, who had three home runs off Latos. Baker stuck with his starter.
Posey hit a 94 mph, 2-2 fastball into the second deck.
“I think the biggest thing that stands out for me is how loud it was and then, when the ball left the bat, how quiet it got,” Posey said. “An interesting feeling, to say the least.”
Said Stubbs: “I remember standing in center field and seeing the pitch and seeing it go. I just fell down in kind of a crouch. Watching that ball travel into the seats kind of rips your heart out.”
Grand slam. 6-0. Game over, right?
Not quite. Phillips doubled in two runs in the bottom of the inning. Ludwick hit a solo shot in the sixth. Bruce followed with a walk. Rolen singled. With 3-2 count and Hanigan at the plate, Baker started the runners. Hanigan took a called third strike, and Bruce was thrown out at third. The ball looked to be outside. The call goes the other way and the Reds have the bases loaded with one out. As it was, they had a runner at second and two out. Rally over.
The Reds threatened in the seventh as well.
The ninth turned out to be the most dramatic inning in Great American Ball Park history.
Cozart walked with one out. Votto followed with a single. Ludwick singled to get Cozart home and bring the winning run to the plate.
Romo kept challenging Bruce with sliders. He fouled off the first two, then took one for a ball.
Four more foul balls.
The crescendo was building in the crowd. The fans were starting to anticipate a storybook ending. Votto sensed it.
“I feel like up to that point -- and I have to be careful about what I say here because I don’t want to mind read and put words in the their mouth -- but it felt like they weren’t going to get their hopes up, then in that at-bat their hopes were as high as could be,” he said.
Bruce fouled one more back, took a ball to get the count full.
“I remember being in the outfield and thinking, ‘I love this moment,”’ Pence said. “If Bruce happens to win this and get the big hit or if Romo gets the out and we move on, it was like this is teams playing at their best. There was a tremendous amount of fight. Just a beautiful competition.”
Romo’s 12th was another slider. Bruce lofted into left for the second out. Rolen struck out to end it in what would be his last at-bat ever.
“It was a really disappointing moment,” Votto said. “Jay looked like he was on every pitch Romo was firing up there, and (Jay) had a chance to walk it off and send us to the next round. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. But I’ve never seen or heard them as loud or as passionate that moment.”
The Reds contended again in 2013, making it as a wildcard team. But the year was seen as a failure, and it cost Baker his job.
Price was promoted to manager. The Reds made a run at contending in 2014, but when they fell out of the race, the rebuild was in full swing. One by one, the players key to the 2012 run were traded or allowed to walk through free agency. Cozart, a rookie in 2012, will likely be the next to go.
“I remember (coach Chris) Speier telling me to take in all your playoff experiences because you never know when you’re going to get back,” Cozart said. “Now, I’m at where I’m at and how we’ve played the last four years. He was completely right. It seems like so long ago.”
I’ve always been convinced if the Reds had won the series with the Giants and made a deep run into the playoffs it would have changed the course of the franchise.
Arroyo isn’t so sure -- that the Reds could have done what the Giants did or even if the Reds had, it wouldn’t have changed things that greatly.
“People say the Giants went on and swept the whole thing,” he said. “You can’t put that on this team. We hadn’t shown we had the ability to sweep right through the playoffs like that. We needed some timely pitching. We needed some things to do right for us. It wasn’t like a team that was going to steamroll through it. The Giants were a different beast. They showed their true character. You just can’t hand that over to team like us. We hadn’t done it.
“If we get deeper into the playoffs, there’s more optimism. But I think at the end of the day, I don’t think that team was willing to pay the price to keep those guys together -- to pay a Johnny Cueto and a Mike Leake and a Homer, and say Bronson ‘we’ll give you one year.’ I don’t see it happening.
“I think the dollar bill rules all. You try to do the best you can after that is stated. Things would be different in some ways. Would we be looking at a locker room that is completely different than it is today? I’m not convinced of it.”
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I don’t know. You see with a lot teams even after winning there’s still a bit of a rough patch afterward. I’m not sure if we would have done anything different.”
John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.