The 2010 Reds stood little chance of beating the Phillies in the Division Series. The Phillies’ rotation was simply too good.
Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter in Game 1. The Reds made four errors and hit three batters in Game 2. Cole Hamels threw a five-hit shutout in Game 3 – and just like that, the team with the highest-scoring offense in the National League was eliminated.
These Reds are better.
I won’t predict that they will advance past the Division Series, not when their opponent has yet to be determined, not when trying to forecast the baseball postseason is an exercise in futility.
But the Reds, whose magic number for clinching the NL Central is one as they host the Dodgers this weekend (Saturday, MLB on FOX, 4:10 p.m. ET), boast a more talented pitching staff than their 2010 predecessors.
The 2010 team was 10th in the NL in rotation ERA and seventh in bullpen ERA. The 2012 team ranks sixth in the league in rotation ERA, first in bullpen ERA – and its five starters have combined to make all but one start this season.
True, the Reds’ offense isn’t what it was in ’10, ranking only eighth in the NL in scoring. But injuries to first baseman Joey Votto and third baseman Scott Rolen have contributed to the lack of production, and all of the team’s hitters are on track to be healthy for the postseason.
Alas, the Reds have two significant pitching concerns.
Closer Aroldis Chapman has not pitched since Sept. 10 because of shoulder fatigue. And if ace right-hander Johnny Cueto fails to rebound from his late-season funk, the Reds might be in a position comparable to where they were two years ago against the Phillies.
Righty Edinson Volquez started Game 1 after making only 12 starts during the regular season while recovering from Tommy John surgery and serving a 50-game suspension for violating baseball’s drug policy.
Manager Dusty Baker reasoned that Volquez had pitched well in his final four regular-season starts, had enjoyed success against the Phillies the previous season, had the best chance of any Reds starter to hold down the Phils’ left-handed hitters.
It all seemed logical enough until Volquez took the mound and lasted only 1 2/3 innings – a problem on a night when the other guy was throwing a no-hitter. Bronson Arroyo and Cueto pitched OK in games 2 and 3, but to no avail.
Now Volquez is gone, and Cueto is the Reds’ clear No. 1. Only lately, he isn’t pitching like a No. 1. His results were better Thursday, coming off three difficult starts that probably cost him the NL Cy Young Award. But even though Cueto pitched six scoreless innings against the Cubs, he allowed nine baserunners (one on an intentional walk) and wasn’t especially sharp.
He has worked 203 innings, a career-high.
“I don’t think that was the best stuff he’s ever had,” Cubs manager Dale Sveum told reporters. “You can tell he might be getting a little tired at the end of the year or whatever, but I’ve seen him with a lot better stuff.”
Cueto’s problem, if there is a problem, doesn’t appear to be physical. He threw 92 to 95 mph Thursday, and his recent readings have been among his highest of the season, according to one Reds official. The bigger issue, the official says, is that Cueto is missing up in the zone, failing to generate early contact off his sinker.
The Reds, at this point, aren’t inclined to give Cueto a breather; quite the contrary, they want him to get back on a roll. Cueto, though, likely will make abbreviated appearances in his final two regular-season starts. And while Baker could go with someone else in Game 1 – righties Mat Latos, Arroyo and Homer Bailey all are pitching well – it’s not the manager’s style to demote a veteran who excelled for most of the season. Nor should it be.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
The regular season is not over, and the Reds cannot be content simply to win the NL Central. Finishing with the league’s best record – the Reds currently trail the Nationals by a half-game — would provide a tangible benefit in the Division Series, not to mention home-field advantage in the NLCS.
The way things stand, the top seed in the NL will avoid the Giants in the first round and face the wild-card winner. That team – whether it’s the Braves, Cardinals, Brewers or Dodgers – likely will burn its best pitcher in the one-game knockout, if not a prior tiebreaker. So, the top seed probably will avoid seeing Kris Medlen, Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo or Josh Beckett – yes, Beckett is the Dodgers’ ace at this moment – until at least Game 3.
The Cardinals’ rotation ERA actually is better than the Giants’, but if Lohse can pitch only once, the group overall will be less formidable. Even against the Giants, the Reds would not necessarily be at a disadvantage; their rotation actually has outperformed San Francisco’s when accounting for the differences in home ballparks. Then again, right-hander Matt Cain and lefty Madison Bumgarner might be better than any starter the Reds have.
Actually, I may be wrong about that – Latos has a 2.83 ERA in his last 10 starts, Arroyo a 2.85 in his last seven, Bailey a 1.55 in his last four. A return to form by Cueto and Chapman, and the Reds would stand a legitimate chance of winning the World Series.
They’re better than they were in 2010. Their first-round opponent figures to be less formidable than the Phillies were that year. Still, the Reds arguably need Cueto more than the Nationals need Stephen Strasburg. And Cueto, at least right now, is not the same.