We're taking a tour of October as the playoffs approach, with an in-depth look at those who are postseason-bound.
Having already explored the American League East champion Red Sox, the National League West champion Dodgers, the NL East-winning Braves, the AL West champion A's, the AL Central champion Tigers and the NL Central-leading Cardinals, we continue now with the Cincinnati Reds.
The Reds are a 90-win team (and counting), lifting them into the ranks of the National League elite, which is where they expected to be at the start of the season.
What they couldn't have expected was just how uniquely competitive the NL Central would be this season, and that competitiveness has made this otherwise elite NL unit a third-place club for the bulk of the year. So there is undoubtedly disappointment in Cincinnati over not repeating with a division title, and the Reds will now be exposed to the whims of the Wild Card round of the postseason.
Most likely -- with the Cardinals' magic number for clinching the division at just one, entering the weekend -- the Reds will be exposed to those whims against a Pirates team with which they are also squaring off this weekend, and so home-field advantage is on the line these next few days.
But if Cincinnati can get out of that first round unscathed, you still have to like and respect its World Series chances, despite that notable hurdle posed by Clint Hurdle and Co.
The Reds do, after all, have what has been a strong rotation all season, one made all the better by Johnny Cueto's recent return from his third disabled-list stint. And they do have a lineup that, with Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto in the Nos. 1 and 3 spots, generates the run-scoring opportunities that'll keep the motor running come October. If Choo reaches base just four more times this weekend, he and Votto will become just the third pair of teammates in the last 75 years to both reach base 300 times in a single season.
Choo was acquired for that very purpose of reinventing the Reds' leadoff role. It was a short-sighted but much-needed trade, and it put all the more emphasis on getting things right here in 2013, before Choo heads into free agency. Bronson Arroyo's pending free agency also increases the emphasis on the present.
Manager Dusty Baker has been trying to instill a sense of urgency in this club all year. This is, after all, Cincinnati's third postseason appearance in the last four years, and the organization will not be content with another first-round ouster. Especially not on the heels of last year's surprising fall from grace after the Reds took a 2-0 lead on the Giants on the road in the best-of-five NL Division Series.
No wonder the Reds didn't pop any champagne bottles when they clinched their October spot. Been there, done that. The goal here is the World Series, so that Votto and Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce and Mat Latos and Homer Bailey and Aroldis Chapman can have their names alongside the likes of Barry Larkin, Chris Sabo, Eric Davis, Jose Rijo and the Nasty Boys or the cavalcade of Hall of Famers who made up the Big Red Machine.
It's a big goal, but it's a realistic one, especially with improved health in the rotation and bullpen. The reason the Reds have treaded water in the division race much of the year is that they haven't had any ridiculous runs or any ridiculous ruts. They've won more than four in a row just three times, but, equally important, they've lost more than three in a row just twice.
A nice, crazy run might be in order to get where Cincinnati ultimately wants to go. This weekend would be a nice place to start.
The bats: The Reds are third in the NL in runs per game (4.35), primarily because they create opportunities with a .328 on-base percentage that ranks second. The frustration this season has been production out of the No. 2 hole (RBI machine Phillips recently moved there) and capitalizing on those run-scoring opportunities in the most pressure-packed moments. The club's .205 batting average with runners in scoring position and two outs ranks 13th among the 15 teams. Cincinnati also spent much of the season without Ryan Ludwick, heightening a need for right-handed power in the middle of the order that has largely gone unmet. Ludwick has been back for more than a month and been uneven at the plate, but he has shown signs.
The arms: Cincinnati's rotation doesn't get the acclaim of some others, but it's arguably been every bit as good. Its 3.36 ERA is second in the Majors only to that of the Dodgers (3.16), and that's all the more impressive when you consider Cueto has been limited to 11 starts. Latos (14-7, 3.16) has done a terrific job stepping into the ace shoes, and Bailey (11-11, 3.40), Mike Leake (14-7, 3.37), Arroyo (14-11, 3.60) and the rookie Tony Cingrani (7-4, 2.92) have followed suit. The bullpen has had its ups and downs from going much of the season without Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton, but Marshall's recent return helps the situation considerably, and Chapman has a 0.63 ERA over his last 13 appearances.
The MVP: Oh, boy. Here's a controversial subject. To many (Baker included), Phillips is the undisputed MVP of this club much of this season, as he's racked up the RBIs. Phillips and Bruce have both surpassed the 100 mark in that department. But RBIs are a product of opportunity, and because he's provided those opportunities at such an elite rate, posting a .434 OBP, Votto remains this club's MVP, no matter how many people complain about his RBI total.
The ace: General manager Walt Jocketty made a bold move in acquiring Latos from the Padres before the 2012 season, envisioning him pairing with Cueto to form a dominant one-two punch ("Cuetos"?). There was no telling how Latos would transition from pitcher-friendly Petco Park to Great American Small Park, but he transitioned seamlessly. And this season, Latos has matured all the more in terms of the depth of his weaponry and his ability to limit fly balls. With Cueto out much of the year, Latos' presence has been pivotal. He's likely to get the ball in the NL Wild Card Game.
The unsung hero: He doesn't have the dreadlocks of Cueto, the tattoos of Latos, the flowing locks of Arroyo or the no-hitter history of Bailey, but Leake has had a really nice season. He has a 2.81 ERA on the road, and his 192 1/3 innings are a career best.
The pressing question: Will there be room on the postseason roster for Blazin' Billy Hamilton? Even if you thought Hamilton could be more than just a nice little niche player in these final weeks of the season, there's no way you could have imagined the level of impact he's made. He successfully swiped 13 straight bags before finally being caught Wednesday. And he's scored a handful of game-changing runs. Though Hamilton didn't come aboard until September, he could be eligible as an injury replacement for Nick Masset (60-day DL), so the Reds have a big decision to make. Hamilton's late-inning speed would be a nice asset for Cincinnati in October, but the club does have to be able to trust that Hamilton can deliver with his bat, too, if need be.