The atmosphere on the field at PNC Park during pregame introductions on Tuesday was intense.
Reds manager Dusty Baker smiled like a cheshire cat, seeming to bask in the tumult as Pirates fans roared. He playfully waved to the crowd as he took the field before the Reds starters were introduced.
Joey Votto, meanwhile, waited for his name to be called with a look of intense concentration. You couldn’t tell if he was excited, confident or worried. He had on his poker face.
Todd Frazier, the team cheerleader, did what he always does, pumping up his teammates with a round of elbow bumping. If the Reds needed a reminder that this was a game and it was supposed to be fun, Frazier provided it.
From all appearances in those final moments before the National League wild card playoff game, the Reds looked like a team that could put the past week behind it and become a new team in the playoffs.
Then the game began, and the Reds proved to be the team most fans thought they were by losing 6-2. The Pirates out-hit the Reds. They out-pitched the Reds. They fielded better than the Reds. It was a continuation of what happened last weekend in Cincinnati when the Pirates swept the final series of the regular season.
This result was not a fluke, and the Reds were left wondering how the Pirates became a better team.
“I think it’s still something to be proud of, getting to the playoffs three out of four years,” catcher Ryan Hanigan said, “but it’s a disappointment. We’re trying to do more than we have in the past for the city, and it just didn’t work out. We got beat straight up.
“We’ve got a great group of guys, a great team. The front office, Bob (Castellini) and Walt (Jocketty), they do a great job with talent and finding guys. Guys got hurt this year. We lost some big-name guys for a while. Guys filled in. There’s a lot to look forward to. Some young guys came in and did their jobs and have a bright future. This organization is not going anywhere. We’re going to be in the mix for a while.”
For all the Reds accomplished (the no-hitter by Homer Bailey, the sweep of the Dodgers in September, the Billy Hamilton show, the comeback against the Pirates from three runs down in the ninth in the third-to-last series of the season), most fans will remember the ending more than anything.
After averaging 6.6 runs during an eight-game span from Sept. 14-22, the Reds averaged 1.9 runs in their last seven games. The slump started in the first game of the last homestand of the season when they beat the Mets 3-2 in nine innings.
The Reds didn’t win again. They scored as many as three runs only once more. In the six-game losing streak to end the season, the Reds had the lead for a total of 1/3 of an inning. That was in Saturday’s 8-3 loss to the Pirates at Great American Ball Park.
The starting pitching disappeared at an inopportune time, as well. The last six pitchers to start a game this season — Mike Leake, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo, Greg Reynolds and Johnny Cueto — suffered losses.
Latos was the only one in that stretch to deserve a win. He threw seven scoreless innings last Tuesday in what would turn out to be his last start of the season.
“We played good baseball throughout the whole season,” right fielder Jay Bruce said. “We won 90 games. But we never hit our stride. In 2012, we won 10 in a row. This year, we won six in a row. But we just kind of missed whatever it was to get on a roll. We have to find a way to get better.”