With no real expectation hanging over them, the Cincinnati Reds enter the 2010 playoffs amid little fanfare, overshadowed considerably by their NLDS opponent, the 2008 World Series Champion Philadelphia Phillies.
Despite winning the NL Central, the Reds face a tough draw in a championship-caliber Philadelphia squad.
The Reds look to topple a team looking to appear in its third straight World Series, not to mention motivated to return because of last season's loss to the Yankees.
The Phillies own the best record the majors at 97-65 and are the league's hottest team coming into the playoffs, ending the season on a torrid 24-7 run, with starters Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels posting a 13-1 record in September.
While Dusty Baker's young group has a tough series ahead of them, the Division Series represents a great opportunity for the Reds to display their talents to a national audience.
In his 15th season, Scott Rolen will look to use his ample playoff experience, which includes two World Series appearances and one victory, to help ease the pressure on his inexperienced teammates. Still a productive part of the Cincinnati batting order despite the old man tag he bears in the clubhouse, Rolen will look to protect MVP candidate Joey Votto (.329, 37 HRs, 113 RBI) against the formidable Big Three of the Phillies rotation.
With Votto in mind, the All-Star first baseman remains the player most essential to Cincinnati's success in the NLDS and beyond. This year, the power-hitting lefty went toe to toe with fellow first baseman and three-time MVP award winner Albert Pujols for the NL MVP and NL Central crown, winning the most important of those two battles, as the Reds flew past St. Louis for their first playoff berth in 15 years.
For the Reds to be successful in this series, their offense must flow through Votto, instead of just being Votto. In Cincinnati's 92 victories, the Canadian-born lefty hit .332 with a whopping 81 RBI in just 310 at-bats, while only racking up 32 RBI in the other 67 games. The problem with these splits is that in those Reds losses, Votto's batting average was still a solid .309, and his 12 home runs were only one less than he accumulated during victories.
Votto, while consistently an offensive force whether the Reds won or not, still needed the help of his teammates to ensure success for Cincinnati. While that may seem cliché, the truth of the matter is that Philadelphia's pitching staff is good enough that it can afford to give up a base to a player of Joey Votto's caliber, especially if the rest of the Reds offense isn't up to par.
The pressure then falls on Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce, two key components of the Reds' lineup, to produce at the plate to complement Cincinnati's prize first baseman in these playoffs.
Known for his big mouth and even bigger bat, Phillips is a perennial power threat at the top of the Reds' order, accounting for 106 home runs over the last five seasons. While he may be having a down year (.275, 18 HRs, 59 RBI), the playoffs represent a clean slate for Phillips to break out offensively and make up for his subpar season.
Behind Votto in the Reds' batting order is defensive standout Jay Bruce, the cardiac kid himself. A once-heralded prospect in the Cincinnati system, Bruce has shown flashes of greatness, especially in clutch situations, throughout the season.
The right fielder has taken his game to the next level over the season's final two-plus months, hitting .338 with 15 homers and 29 RBI since August 1st, including a game-winning, division-clinching home run against the Houston Astros on September 28th.
On top of his offensive output, Bruce is regarded as the second-best defensive right fielder in the majors this year, behind only the immortal Ichiro Suzuki. The young outfielder used both his arm and his legs to make highlight-reel plays for Cincinnati all season long, as he became a staple of ESPN's Baseball Tonight's Web Gems segment.
Led by Dusty Baker, managing his fifth postseason with his third different team, the untested Cincinnati Reds must show poise and maturity when they take the field against a seasoned Phillies team. With 22 wins in their last at-bat this season, the Reds are no strangers to playing the underdog role, something they will have to deal with right off the bat in these 2010 MLB Playoffs.
Jesse Paguaga is a regular contributor to Baseball Digest. He writes as an intern on the Bleacher Report website. Jesse writes for Gotham Baseball, along with Gotham Hoops and Gotham Gridiron. He can be reached at Paguaga@usc.edu and can be found on Facebook and Twitter (@JPags77).
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