Almost every demise in a baseball season is slow (unless you’re the Pittsburgh Pirates–more on them later). When a team still has a shot at the postseason by September, every game means that team is chasing something. And that chase means that should they falter on Tuesday, by Wednesday’s first pitch, fans and players alike will have convinced themselves it’ll all still turn around despite the obvious. Baseball deaths are universally by a thousand cuts, with teams and fans never quite sure when the agony will end until the playoff math says so.
Or you can just do what the Cincinnati Reds did last night and make it pretty damn clear to everyone.
Despite a 10-17 August and a middling September, the Reds have hung around the NL wildcard race thanks to no one really taking the last two spots by the neck. It’s something of a free hit for the Reds, as they’re at least a year early on competing for October given where they are in their rebuild curve. But once you hit the last two weeks of the season with a good chance, then it becomes something more than a cheap thrill.
Before yesterday’s game against the Pirates, the Reds’ grip was already loosening, and with the Cubs and Marlins victorious yesterday, the Reds badly needed a win to keep their fingers on the bumper. For Redlegs fans in Cincy, scoring the first nine runs of the game against Pittsburgh was certainly a relaxing start. Too relaxing, as it turned out.
Starter Connor Phillips, a desperation call-up to finish out the season as his time in AAA still had a lot to be worked out, cruised through the first three innings, and only had a minor hiccup in the fourth, giving up a run. Heading into the sixth up eight, he probably thought he was merely running out the clock on his second win in the majors. Especially after being removed after two singles, who would have thought there was any danger on hand?
Perhaps if he’d noticed the can of kerosine and torch Alex Young was bringing to the mound, he might have worried a little more. Young got the first out, then gave up a single to Ji Hwan Bae, a screamer of a liner to Alika Williams that was right at Elly De La Cruz, another single to Joshua Palacios, and a three-run shot to Bryan Reynolds and suddenly it was 9-6 and a game.
Fernando Cruz entered in the 7th, carrying his own box of tangled fireworks. Cruz has been good for most of the season, but like the rest of the Reds’ staff he gagged through September, with a 6.48 ERA. Single, double, walk, and Cruz was put out of his misery with Lucas Sims replacing him then immediately surrendering a bases-clearing double from Alfonso Rivas. The torching was nearly complete: Cruz and Sims had teamed up to successfully immolate Great American Ballpark with the Reds’ playoff hopes trapped inside.
Alexis Diaz has been the Reds closer, and until lately he’d been excellent at being so. But it’s the end of his first full season and his gas tank is running on empty. Whatever fuel was left, Diaz apparently siphoned out for use in a molotov cocktail of his own. His last outing saw him pitch a lead against the Twins over the upper deck. Last night he turned a tie game into one that was out of reach, giving up five hits versus two outs, leading to four runs and a 13-9 deficit that the offense couldn’t quite haul back, eventually losing 13-12.
It was the first time in Pirates history–that’s 140 years if you’re counting–that they’d ever come back from nine runs down to win. The loss left the Reds 2.5 games adrift of the final wildcard spot, though they do have the tiebreaker over the Cubs, with only six games left.
But sometimes a gap on the standings page doesn’t really tell you the whole story. There are losses that kick a team into a safe, after which that safe is locked and tossed off a pier into a lake. That was last night for the Reds (a special note to the Pirates, who are 27-23 since August 1st and have taken bites out of every playoff contender lately and are doing that thing the Tigers always do at the end of seasons that get baseball writers hot and bothered about “momentum” into the following season). Reds fans don’t really need to worry about the next day or the math or slowly bleeding to death over the next week. They got three shots to the head last night and the lights went out. Rarely in baseball do you get to know so clearly and thoroughly. Perhaps they should take solace in the relief of it.
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