Reds right fielder Jay Bruce made an interesting point in early September.
Calm Septembers in 2010 and 2012, when the Reds faced little tension on their way to clinching division titles, didn’t give the team an extra edge in October. Their postseason dreams fizzled in the division series both times.
“We’ve clinched early the last two times we’ve been to the playoffs, and we haven’t had a lot of success,” Bruce said. “Maybe a change of pace is going to help us.”
That’s the optimistic way of looking at it. The pessimist would say the Reds could easily be in first place.
Entering the weekend, they had lost 21 games when they had the lead in the seventh inning or later. By comparison, they won 15 times when trailing in the seventh inning or later. The most impressive of those wins came Friday when they rallied from three runs down in the ninth to tie the Pirates and then beat them 6-5 in 10 innings, pulling even with Pittsburgh going into Saturday night’s games.
Despite many missed opportunities early in the season, or because of them, the Reds find themselves in the thick of a tight pennant race. Through Friday, the Cardinals led the division by two games. The Reds haven’t entered the final series of the regular season with a division title or wild card on the line since 1999.
“You get spoiled by wrapping it up too early,” Reds manager Dusty Baker said. “Every year is different.”
Baker has been involved in plenty of races, but not with the Reds. Earlier this month, he talked about the secret to playing great baseball late in the season.
“You have to be strong mentally,” Baker said. “It helps to be strong physically. That’s why I encourage my guys to take care of themselves, eat well.”
Baker then launched into a NASCAR analogy, saying he had recently watched Kyle Busch win a race because of a poor pit stop by Joey Logano.
“Everybody’s running on empty,” Baker said. “It’s just I’m not as empty as you. That’s how I look at it. I don’t want to hear people talk about being tired. You can talk yourself into being tired — even though you probably are. The secret is playing good baseball and not overlooking anybody, no matter who you’re playing.”
The Reds have no time for fatigue. They close the series in Pittsburgh today, then host the Mets for three games before getting their last off day of the regular season Thursday. Then it’s one last series against the Pirates at Great American Ball Park Friday through Sunday.
It’s a good bet the playoff matchups won’t be set until the final Sunday. That’s rare for the Reds.
They wrapped up the division title with 10 games to go in 2012 and with five games to go in 2010. They won the division by nine games in 1995 and by five games in 1990. So the last four times the Reds won the division, there was never any real doubt they would do so.
The Reds have never won the wild card. The 1999 team lost two of its last three games in Milwaukee to fall into a tie with the Mets back when there was only one wild-card team. The Mets’ Al Leiter then shut the Reds down in a one-game playoff at Cinergy Field.
Until this season, that was the only time in the last 30 years the Reds faced must-win games in the final days of the season.
The Reds finished second to the Dodgers in 1992, eight games back. It was the same story in 1988 when the Reds again placed second to L.A., seven games back this time.
That was the fourth second-place finish in a row for the Reds under manager Pete Rose, and none of the races was especially tight. They lost to the Giants by six games in 1987, to the Astros by 10 games in 1986 and to the Dodgers by 5½ in 1985.
The 1981 Reds famously won more games than any other NL team in a strike-shortened season. They missed the playoffs because they finished second in the first half to the Dodgers and in the second half to the Astros. The four winners of each half in each division met in a division series playoff.
You have to go back all the way to 1979 to find another tight division race involving the Reds. That year Cincinnati held off the Astros to win the West Division by 1½ games.
The Big Red Machine didn’t play around when it came to clinching postseason berths. The Reds won the West by 10 games in 1976 and by 20 in 1975. The 1974 Reds trailed by 1½ games on Sept. 14 but never got any closer, finishing in second, four back of the Dodgers.
The 1972 Reds won the division by 10½ games. The 1970 Reds won by 14½.