Reds do it their way to clinch NL Central title
CINCINNATI — The first spray of champagne drenched the face of Aroldis Chapman before he could leave the mound, seconds after the Cincinnati Reds turned a double play to end Saturday's game.
Let the celebration begin. And begin it did, a rousing and rowdy display after the Reds clinched the National League Central championship, put the St. Louis Cardinals 12 games behind with only 10 to play.
The clubhouse became a misty champagne sprayfest — not much consumed, a tanker truck drenching the players and the room.
The Reds did it their way, did it the way they wanted to do it. They wanted to do it themselves, just the way they did it all season.
They wanted no help from somebody else, no help from the Chicago Cubs. If the Cubs had beaten the St. Louis Cardinals Saturday afternoon, the Reds would have won the National League Central without raising a bat or throwing a ball or catching a pop fly.
But the Cardinals beat the Cubs in extra innings, and that's the way the Reds wanted it — they wanted to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers late Saturday afternoon and clinch it themselves, no help wanted, no help needed.
And they did it emphatically, this 6-0 victory that was painted by eight shutout innings from Mat Latos and punctuated by solo home runs from Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips. A two-run single by rookie Zack Cozart in the eighth inning put a neat frame around the eventful afternoon for 41,117 fans in Great American Ball Park.
And so, after going 14 years without making the playoffs since 1995, the Reds now have won the division two of the last three years under manager Dusty Baker.
Sadly, Baker remained in a Chicago hospital undergoing tests and treatment for an irregular heartbeat and was not with the team on Clinch Day.
The team, though, did not forget him. Before the obligatory spilling of champagne and beer in the clubhouse, general manager Walt Jocketty walked in and proposed a toast to the absent manager, then the team gathered together for a private moment.
"We missed Dusty, and we know he is doing well and he'll be back soon," said Scott Rolen, the acknowledged leader, a veteran presence in the clubhouse. "He as big a part of this as anybody, the hours and time he puts in. He kind of digs this celebratory stuff, so it is a shame he wasn't here. But he is here with us."
It is only Step 1, though. In 2010, the Reds won the division but lost three straight to the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Division Series. The goal this time is to survive the first round, survive the second round and win the World Series.
Dreams are made of this, dreams that began when owner Bob Castellini put together a consortium to buy the team in 2006. He promised the fans a winner, and it took longer than he had hoped, but now the fans are seeing the fruits of the labors from Castellini, the world's No. 1 fruit and vegetables wholesaler.
"Some people say we're a good team that plays great, but I think we're a good team that is going to be a great team in the next few weeks," said Castellini.
"The guys on this team covered each other's backs when our best player, Joey Votto, went down (for six weeks)," he said. "They looked at each other and said, ‘Who's going to do it?' And guess what? They said, 'I guess it is going to be you and you and you and me.' They covered each other's backs, everybody's backs."
In 2010, it was three-and-out to the Phillies. How about 2012?
"Two years ago, we were just in the playoffs," said Castellini. "This year, we are going to go deep into the playoffs."
In 2010, it was Jay Bruce hitting a walk-off home run that clinched the division. On Saturday, Bruce broke a 0-0 tie in the fourth inning to start the boulder rolling.
"In 2010, we surprised everybody, including ourselves, by winning the division," said Bruce. "This year, we surprised no one, and we had targets on our backs all year. I'll steal a line from Dusty Baker and say it is better to be the hunted than the hunter, and we were the hunted all year."
Bruce said the work isn't done, not even the regular-season work, "because we still have a chance to win 100 games and we still have a chance to have the best record and be the No. 1 seed."
Rolen, the 37-year-old third baseman, did some mild spraying and braying, but he is in a been-there, done-that mode and knows there is more work to do.
"But a lot of players haven't been here before," he said. "Some play a long time, and it's never, they never get to feel this. And you never get tired of it. Where else can you squirt champagne in people's faces and have them enjoy it?"
The Reds, particularly the offense, have not been firing oil-smooth, and runs have not come easily. And that's nothing new for Rolen.
"The time I was on a World Series-winning team (the Cardinals in 2006), we were playing as poorly as anybody in baseball, but we walked right through the thing," said Rolen. "We have a nice thing going on here, a group of good players. But you take nothing for granted. You savor this moment and get ready for the playoffs so you can do this three more times."
Jocketty took some heavy hits in the off-season for trading four players for one — three top prospects and a pitcher who had a 17-win season and an All-Star appearance (Edinson Volquez) for a slightly flaky, tattoo-covered pitcher named Mat Latos.
So it was apropos that it was Latos putting the finishing touches on the NL Central, winning his 13th game against four losses with a near flawless performance.
Latos agreed with most fans in the early going, trying to prove his worth, and even said, "I didn't think I was worth four players, and I tried to hard to justify it."
So for his first five starts in April, he was 1-2 with a 5.97 ERA, but shut down the negative thoughts and turned on the positive ions. Over his last 17 starts, he is 8-2 with a 2.53 earned run average.
And he got to put the finishing paint on a season that was on the brink for him, but turned into a wild success.