Man, that one hurts. That one really hurts.
The Cincinnati Reds squandered a golden opportunity to play in the franchise’s first NLCS since 1995, succumbing to the spirited comeback of the pesky San Francisco Giants on Thursday. Cincinnati took the first two in San Fran, but they failed to grab one of the final three at home, and Reds fans everywhere felt that familiar sinking feeling along the way.
Before we get to what went wrong in this series, let’s look at what went right this season.
First, the Reds responded well to tough situations. Prior to Opening Day, the Reds were faced with adversity when their newly minted closer, Ryan Madson, went down for the season with Tommy John surgery. Out of the adversity emerged an opportunity for Cuban flamethrower Aroldis Chapman to showcase his electric stuff en route to becoming perhaps the most dominant closer in franchise history.
Then in June, more adversity arose when 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto went down with a knee injury. Out of that adversity emerged a rookie (Todd Frazier: 19 HR, 67 RBI) and a journeyman outfielder (Ryan Ludwick: 26 HR, 80 RBI) to carry the club offensively and help the Reds post a .667 winning percentage with Votto on the shelf.
Second, the staff, led by pitching coach Bryan Price, was hundreds and hundreds of light years better than the 2011 group, thanks to a few factors.
The renewed dedication of veteran leader Bronson Arroyo set the tone for the club’s first top-five ERA finish in what seems like a thousand years. GM Walt Jocketty got rid of the ever-infuriating Edinson Volquez to bring in a young and hungry right-hander with a top-shelf fastball and a mean streak in Mat Latos. The move paid off in droves, as Latos finished 14-4 with a 3.48 ERA, while Reds fans toasted Jocketty every five days because they didn’t have to suffer through another Volquez mess.
Jocketty also thickened up the bullpen with the addition of lefty curveballer Sean Marshall, the back page acquisitions of Alfredo Simon and J.J. Hoover and the trade-deadline snag of Jonathan Broxton. Finally, the emergence of Homer Bailey as a big-game pitcher was a welcome sight to Reds fans, especially when the Texan twirled the first no-hitter by a Red since 1998 in Pittsburgh in September. Price's emphasis in retiring the first batter of the inning (the Reds led the majors in that stat) was also a huge key.
Third, the Reds played phenomenal defense, committing the second fewest errors in the National League. These three factors allowed the Reds to win the NL Central by 9.0 games, finishing 97-65.
The Reds swiped the first two games of the NLDS in San Francisco, despite losing ace Johnny Cueto in the first inning of Game 1—which, of course, is ironic, considering none of the five pitchers in the rotation missed a single start during the entire regular season.
Flying back to Cincinnati last Sunday night, with three chances to close out the Giants and advance to the NLCS, the magical season continued. Unfortunately, the magic would not last.
Let’s revisit Game 3 of the NLDS, or as Reds fans will tell you, when the wheels started to come off.
Who would you have started in Game 4?
Homer Bailey gave a Nolan Ryan-type performance, striking out ten while allowing a single hit and just one run in seven beautiful innings. But the Reds offense was ice cold, and the Giants pulled it out 2-1 in 10 innings.
You can’t lose a closeout game at home when you only give up three hits. You just can’t. Well, the Reds did.
The sad thing about blowing that game was that every Cincinnati fan from the Queen City to Singapore knew the series was over right then. It wasn’t even a question. All too often, from Carson Palmer’s knee injury in the 2005 Wild Card game to Kenyon Martin’s freak broken leg a week before the NCAA Tournament in 2000, the city of Cincinnati has been kicked in its collective beanbag more times than it can count.
Yes, there was 1990. And yes, there was the Big Red Machine. But that stuff was a long, long, long time ago.
It was just one game, that fateful Game 3, but it was a devastating loss. So we come to Game 4, and who do we call? Not Cueto, the ace of the staff; he was ruled out with an oblique injury. Do you go to Latos or Arroyo on short rest? A bullpen patch-up game? Young left-hander Tony Cingrani, a guy who misses bats and who the Giants have never seen before?
None of the above. We call young Mike Leake to walk out to the Great American Ballpark mound and throw batting practice to the Giants.
How did that work out?
Leake allowed a leadoff home run to Angel Pagan and then a two-run shot to Gregor Blanco in the second inning. It was clear he had absolutely nothing out there.
What does manager Dusty Baker do? Leave him out there long enough to give up five runs, naturally. In fact, in the top of the fifth, in a 3-2 ballgame, Leake served up a speaker-shattering leadoff double to Reds-killer Joaquin Arias. Does Baker pull the kid? Nope. Why not?
In his post game interview, Baker said, "You can't have somebody, you know, ready in the bullpen all the time."
In a one-run PLAYOFF game, with a very, very hittable pitcher on the mound, you can’t have somebody warming up in the fifth inning?
Whoops. Guess we’ll leave Leake in to face Pagan, who had only homered and drawn a walk off of the former first-round pick already. Boom, Pagan laces a double to right-center. He would come around to score two batters later, and a one-run game became three-run in a snap.
When people talk about how you can tell a good manager from a bad manager, they talk about situations like that. Failing to be prepared. Failing to think ahead. Failing to understand the situation.
Will Dusty Baker be managing the Reds in 2013?
If I’m managing that game, I’ve got someone warming up every single inning when a guy like Mike Leake’s on the mound. It’s the playoffs. I don’t have time to see if he settles down. If I see one guy jump on something, he’s gone.
Just ask Tony LaRussa. Ask the opposing manager in the series, Bruce Bochy, who pulled his starter in the third inning when he’d only given up two runs.
This is the kind of stuff people like Keith Law are talking about when they question managers.
The Reds went on to lose 8-3 in Game 4, and then mercifully, the Giants put Reds fans out of their misery on Thursday in Game 5 with a 6-4 win.
In the rubber match, the Reds left many men on base; the Giants tortured Reds country with two diving catches in the eighth inning, and yet another questionable decision to leave a pitcher in may have been the difference in the game.
Latos, in the fifth, was allowed to stay in and face Buster Posey with the bases loaded. Posey had already hit one HR off Latos in the series. Latos was clearly rattled at that point and had lost his command. The Reds had a rested bullpen. Posey, naturally, hit a 425-foot grand salami.
Looking ahead to the offseason, there are some questions to answer. It must be stated, however, that this franchise is in great position to contend for the next three to five years, thanks to owner Bob Castellini, GM Walt Jocketty and the rest of the front office and scouting staff. The core of this team is locked up for the next five-plus years, with Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto and Aroldis Chapman under contract for the foreseeable future.
First, what will the Reds do with manager Dusty Baker?
His contract is up following the 2012 campaign. In five seasons in Cincy, Baker has won the NL Central twice, but he has failed to get out of the NLDS in his Reds tenure. He is known as a “player’s manager,” a guy who players love and who allows his players to play through slumps.
However, the knocks on Baker are twofold. One, Dusty Baker is obsessed with veterans. He does not trust young players and only gives them an extended look if injuries force him to do so. And two, his in-game decision-making and lineup construction are seen as heavily outdated.
When Jocketty arrived to the organization in 2008, Baker was already with the club. In other words, Baker isn’t Jocketty’s guy. These next three seasons are, in my mind, the Reds “window.” Will Jocketty trust Baker to guide this team to the playoffs and steer the ship to the championship? Or will he bring in his own handpicked manager?
Next, the Reds have glaring weaknesses both at the top of the order and the center-field spot. Leadoff hopeful Drew Stubbs has the potential of a taller Rickey Henderson—the guy can fly, and when he connects, it’s off into orbit. But, my God, his plate discipline and approach to each at-bat are mind-boggling, and he strikes out more than 25 percent of the time.
Stubbs has had four years to figure out how to put the ball in play more so he can utilize his speed on the bases, but his OBP has dipped and dipped until it fell to a double-take-requiring .277 in 2012. His defense is above-average, but he is a hole in the lineup that a championship contender cannot afford.
A common gripe amongst pundits against Dusty Baker is that he ignored an obvious platoon opportunity in center field that might have worked at the leadoff spot. He played Stubbs everyday despite his splits showing he is far superior against left-handed pitching (.278 BA against LHP, .228 against RHP), while backup center fielder Chris Heisey does well against right-handed pitching (.277 career BA) and struggles against southpaws (.214).
Third, the bench needs to be strengthened. Miguel Cairo is done. Wilson Valdez is a free agent, and with Scott Rolen’s likely departure or retirement, Todd Frazier playing everyday at third base next year opens up a spot. Somehow, the front office needs to find some tough outs to stock the pine with, whether from within or outside of the organization.
And lastly, the starting pitching rotation needs a little more depth.
Yes, the injury to Cueto was unfortunately timed, but there was no clear replacement for a situation such as that. Mike Leake, as I’ve already discussed, is not the guy you want out there in a big game—especially in the playoffs. You look at a team like St. Louis, who lost their ace the past two seasons (Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter) and a starter this postseason (Jaime Garcia) but had four rookies with above-average stuff ready to step in (Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal).
The Reds good luck with the starting staff may have been a curse, because there was no need to give any of the guys in the minors a look during the season. If there had been, maybe we see Tony Cingrani, who had one of the lowest ERAs in all of minor league baseball. Instead, Cingrani becomes a September call-up when the Reds were trying to clinch a division, and he doesn’t see much action.
Depth is definitely a necessity in the starting rotation moving forward. What are the chances the starters will suffer injuries next season? Probably likely, considering how baseball works.
Leake, as I’ve alluded to, is not a championship-caliber starting pitcher. Would he start for St. Louis or the Yankees or the Braves? No chance. Cingrani is down there to possibly take his spot, but who else is in the pipeline? Bronson Arroyo’s final season under contract with the Reds will be 2013, so that’s another spot opening up (assuming the Reds sign Homer Bailey to a four- to six-year deal this offseason).
To sum up, the four glaring issues that need to be addressed this offseason are center field/leadoff spots, strengthening the bench, starting-pitching depth and the manager spot.
But all in all, despite the rough ending, 2012 was a good season for the Redlegs. Walt Jocketty knows what needs to be fixed. He has an owner committed to winning, and he himself has tasted World Series champagne, so Reds fans should feel confident that the right moves will be made.
And if all goes according to plan, the city of Cincinnati will finally see some postseason victories at the Great American Ballpark.