The Hunt for Red October

As of today, the Cincinnati Reds sit 3.5 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Central and only 1.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the top Wild Card spot. The Reds have won three games in a row and 7 of their last 10 to get their closest look at first place since July 7.

It’s beginning to look like the NL Central will get three teams into the playoffs, barring a collapse by one of them or a Dodger-esque run from the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Reds, Pirates, and Cardinals have provided one of the most entertaining races in baseball throughout this season.

JJ Hoover and the Reds Bullpen have stepped up

JJ Hoover and the Reds Bullpen have stepped up

The Cardinals and Pirates have traded places atop the NL Central multiple times throughout the season, while the Reds have played steady baseball and kept themselves in the race.

Despite complaints over injuries, bullpen woes, or the manager, the Reds have done enough to stay relevant.

Less than one week ago, the Reds found themselves a season high seven games out of first place and struggling to find any offense. Six days later, they have made up 4-1/2 games and seem to be playing the best baseball in their division.

Yes, they have a hit a weaker part of their schedule, but all things are equal by the end of the season.

The Reds finish up their three game series with the Chicago Cubs this afternoon and then play a four game set in Milwaukee beginning tomorrow night.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals and Pirates play two more times before playing the Cubs and Diamondbacks this weekend. Why make excuses about playing weaker opponents while the Pirates and Cardinals are playing one another?

The Reds have a golden opportunity to continue making up ground and tightening this division at the top. The Cardinals and Pirates haven’t had to worry much about the Reds so far this season. Judging by the last week, that’s about to change.

Keep in mind the Pirates and Cardinals have relied heavily on young pitchers and heavy bullpen use to get to this point in the season. Young pitching and bullpen use tend to catch up with teams during this part of the season.

Meanwhile, the Reds have battled injuries and played almost the entire season without their cleanup hitter, ace pitcher, and arguably best reliever.

While the Cardinals and Pirates are starting to show signs of fatigue, the Reds are beginning to look stronger with key players returning from the disabled list.

The Pirates are beginning to show signs of fatigue

The Pirates are beginning to show signs of fatigue

There is no denying the Cardinals and Pirates have been better than the Reds so far this season. With that being said, this feels like the right time for the Reds to finally make their move and go on a “run”.

The return of Ryan Ludwick might not seem like a huge deal considering he’s missed four months of baseball, but he provides a veteran leadership in the clubhouse and is a true professional.

Nobody is ready to make a prediction in the NL Central. The Reds still play St. Louis seven more times this season and Pittsburgh six more times, including the last three of the season. Meanwhile, the Cardinals and Pirates play one another eight more times over the next month and a half.

As a Reds fan, you should like where the Reds sit today and be prepared for one of the most exciting finishes in baseball. The crown for the NL Central could very well come down to the last game of the season and there is no reason to believe the Reds won’t be right there to claim it.

The Hunt for Red October is about to heat up.

Cincinnati Reds: 2013 All-Star Break

The Cincinnati Reds sit at 53-42 and 5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. They currently hold a 5 game lead in the NL Wild Card race over the Washington Nationals. If the season ended today, the Reds would play a one game Wild Card in Pittsburgh with the winner getting St. Louis in the NLDS.

To say the first half of the season has been a grind would be an understatement. The Reds have been bitten repeatedly by the injury bug since Opening Day. They have played the majority of the season without their ace, cleanup hitter, and two of their best relief pitchers.

All things considered, the Reds are still on pace to win 91 games and return to the playoffs for the third time in four years. So why does the first half of the season feel like a disappointment?

The Reds miss Ryan Ludwick

The Reds miss Ryan Ludwick

To start, the Reds haven’t passed the oft-used “eye test” of a champion. They still haven’t played close to their best baseball. They have experienced injury issues, a depleted bullpen, inconsistencies at the plate, and too many errors in the field.

This team entered 2013 with high expectations. The front office made it clear they were competing for a championship when it acquired Shin-Soo Choo for what looks like a one year rental. Trading homegrown talent such as Drew Stubbs and Didi Gregarious for Choo displayed a win-now mentality from Walt Jocketty and company.

You either believe the Reds are what they are, or you believe they can improve in the second half and contend for the division crown. I believe the Reds are a better team than what they displayed in the first half of the season.

In my opinion, if they can get healthy and take advantage of an easier second half schedule, there is no reason to believe they can’t challenge the Cardinals and Pirates for the division title. Over the course of a month, they have 10 games against the Cardinals. They end the season with 6 of their last 9 games against the Pirates.

There is still a lot of baseball left.

They key to the 2012 division title was a 15-1 record out of the All-Star break. Joey Votto was placed on the disabled list and the Reds promptly won 10 games in a row and set the pace for the remainder of the season. While it’s unlikely the Reds will duplicate those efforts this year, I still believe they have a hot streak or two in them for the second half.

Brandon Phillips is the first-half MVP for the Reds

Brandon Phillips is the first-half MVP for the Reds

As I’ve written numerous times throughout the season, baseball is a game of ups and downs and highs and lows. The Reds have had a lot of lows during the first half of the season. Call me an optimist, but I believe the Reds best baseball is still ahead.

Make all the fuss you want about how great the Cardinals have been this season, (and they have been tremendous) but I would rather be in first place at the end of the season than at the All-Star break.

Now then, let’s hand out some awards:

MVP

Brandon Phillips production at the plate has carried the Reds much of the first half. His defense remains among the class of the league and he’s hitting .404 with RISP. The team is hitting .252 with RISP. So yeah, Phillips is clearly the first half MVP.

Best Pitcher

This is a close race between Mat Latos and Mike Leake. Leake has been spectacular this season and arguably the biggest surprise on the entire team. His 2.69 ERA is the best among the staff and he has already won as many games as all of last season.

With that being said, I give the nod to Mat Latos. Latos has taken over the role as the team ace in the absence of Johnny Cueto and has delivered solid numbers while already notching 8 wins on the season. If the season ended today, Mat Latos would get the ball for the one game Wild Card in Pittsburgh.

Biggest Surprise

As I just mentioned, Mike Leake has been one of the few bright spots for the Reds this season. A lot of fans seem to forget Leake is only 25 years old and still learning the ropes. He’s transforming from a fifth starter to a legitimate number three and it’s been very fun to watch.

Biggest Disappointment

Todd Frazier has been far too inconsistent for the sixth batter in the lineup. He’s hitting .239 and striking out at an alarming rate. Frazier will need to turn things around in the second half if the Reds want to win the division.

Best Moment

This is easy. Homer David Bailey throwing his second no-hitter in the past year. Few sports moments make you stop whatever you’re doing and find a television or radio or computer. The no-hitter is one of those moments. The no-hitter is one of the most beautiful things in baseball and Homer Bailey made us all proud to be Reds fans.

Second Half Prediction

The Reds win the first series after the break against Pittsburgh and then tread water on their 10 game road-trip out west. They use a soft portion of their schedule in the middle of August to gain some momentum and get Ryan Ludwick back from the DL. For the first time all year, the Reds have Choo, Phillips, Votto, Ludwick, and Bruce in the same lineup.

The Reds play the Cardinals seven times in eleven days and use their balanced lineup to pull within one game of the Cards. The final month of the season is the most exciting race in baseball as the Reds, Cardinals, and Pirates battle for the division crown all the way to the last game of the season.

Alas, the Cardinals get Chris Carpenter back at just the right time and fend off the Reds and Pirates for the division. The Reds return to the playoffs for the third time in four years. The Pirates are the odd team out as the Washington Nationals earn the second wild card and play at GABP for the chance to play St. Louis in the NLDS.

Reds Review: May


The second month of the 2013 season is in the books for the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds finished the month of May 19-8 and stand 2-1/2 games back of the St. Louis Cardinals. With a third of the season already behind them, the Reds have a good idea of where they stand going forward.

After treading water in the month of April, the Reds found a groove in May and took advantage of playing some bad teams. The return of Johnny Cueto and Ryan Hanigan helped bolster the rotation and catching position. Furthermore, the platoon of Xavier Paul, Derrick Robinson, and Donald Lutz held there own in left field.

Phillips and Votto continue to lead Reds

Phillips and Votto continue to lead Reds

Despite playing some very good baseball over the last month, the Reds actually lost ground in the division. Entering June 1, the top three records in all of baseball played in the NL Central. The St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Cincinnati Reds are making the NL Central a national storyline. With nobody backing down or fading from the pack, it appears the division crown will be as competitive as ever.


The Good

Joey Votto has returned to his 2010 MVP form and once again looks like the best hitter in the National League. Votto currently leads all of baseball in runs scored (45), walks (46), and on-base percentage (.465). More importantly, he is driving the ball to every corner of the field and hitting for power when opposing managers actually decide to pitch to him.

The starting rotation continues to produce quality start after quality start. Johnny Cueto looks healthy and strong after spending time on the disabled list in April. Mike Leake produced one of the best months of his young career while going 3-1 with an ERA of 1.87. Nobody on the current rotation has an ERA over 4 and the Reds have Tony Cingrani in the wings if anything should happen going forward.

The Bad

Todd Frazier has hit a sophomore slump in a big way. Frazier didn’t hit a home run in the month of May and hit only .220. The Reds managed to produce enough offense from other positions to make up for the lack of production at third base, but there is no doubt they will need more from Frazier throughout the remainder of the season. Jay Bruce and Frazier supply the power this team needs in the middle of the lineup.

Should Sam Lecure get a chance as the setup man?

Should Sam Lecure get a chance as the setup man?

Jonathan Broxton has looked uncomfortable in the setup spot. Even when the big guy does his job, it isn’t easy. Relievers have ups and downs just like hitters throughout the year, but perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to let Sam Lecure try his hand in the eighth inning.

Lecure has been near dominant this season and he has the mindset to succeed in that role. There is no shame in giving Broxton a break for a few weeks until he finds his stuff both mentally and physically.

Although Cueto and Hanigan returned, injuries are still a concern for this team going forward. It looks like Ryan Ludwick will be out until at least the middle of August. Sean Marshall is back on the disbaled list with a sore shoulder and Chris Heisey continues to rehab his hamstring. The Reds are continuing to get by with the active players on the roster, but at some point the injuries could catch up.

Looking Forward

As mentioned in a recent column, the Reds took advantage of a weak schedule in the month of May and established themselves as a force in the National League. While it’s somewhat depressing to go 19-8 and still lose ground in the division, the Reds have done a great job of keeping pace with the Cardinals and staying in striking distance.

June brings two big series at home against the Cardinals and Pirates as well as the first west coast trip of the year. The Reds have played extremely well at Great American Ballpark and need to take advantage of the seven games against St. Louis and Pittsburgh in the coming weeks.

With the first two months behind them, the Reds find themselves in the heart of what looks like a very exciting division race. Strong pitching, good defense, and clutch hitting from Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips has been the recipe for success so far. Strong pitching and remaining healthy will be the key going forward.

Stay tuned.