Cincinnati Reds: Four reasons they have returned to contention

Reds a half game out of playoffs with 10 games to play

The Cincinnati Reds were 11 games under .500 on Sept. 16, 2019. A year earlier, on the same date, they were 22 games under .500. It was 19 games in 2017, 22 in 2016, 23 in 2015 and 10 in 2014.

Tbe number is two in 2020, and that’s one reason the Reds are enjoying relevancy in September for the first time in seven years. The bigger reason is baseball expanded the playoff field from 10 to 16 when the season was shortened by the coronavirus pandemic..

Instead of being 5½ games out of the National League Central race and eight games out of the wild-card race with 10 games to play, the Reds (24-26) were one half game back in the race for the Central’s second playoff bid and also a half game back in the race for the second wild card.

“I haven’t been this excited for baseball going down the stretch in a long time,” first baseman Joey Votto said Monday, “and that’s not a good thing. That’s not a good thing when I’m wearing a uniform I love to wear and playing in a stadium I love to play at.”

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After helping lead the Reds to three postseason appearances in three years early in his career, Votto got used to playing for a non-contender.

“You get used to it in a bad way if that makes sense,” he said. “You don’t get used to it, but you get used to it. You can’t stay angry endlessly, so you’re thinking to yourself, ‘OK, I have to do well, and I hope we do well.’ And then year after year, you just continue to play collectively poorly and not win and be out of it so early. In the most unhealthy sort of way, you get acclimated to it. All the years when we were successful earlier in my career, I got used to winning in the inverse. You just show up, and of course, we were going to clinch. Of course, we were going to win the division. Of course, we were going to play well collectively. You get used to it.”

In recent days, the Reds have gotten used to winning again. They have won four games in a row for the first time this season. Here are four reasons for the four victories:

1. The Pirates came along at the right time: Every team in baseball has at least three more victories than the Pirates (14-33). The Reds and Pirates split the first six games in the season series, but the Reds won the first three games in the four-game series this week by a combined score of 16-6.

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2. The bullpen has done its job: Four relievers combined to allow one earned run on five hits Tuesday in a 4-1 victory at Great American Ball Park. That group included Michael Lorenzen, who made his first start since 2018 and allowed one earned run on four hits in five innings.

“It’s the same approach, same everything,” Lorenzen said. “I’m just going to throw more pitches. That’s kind of what I went out there and did. Our bullpen did a good job coming in and keeping our lead where it was. Kudos to the whole pitching staff and also the offense for giving me that wiggle room early.”

Lorenzen wanted to pitch past the fifth but was replaced by Tejay Antone, who pitched a scoreless sixth. Lucas Sims followed with two scoreless innings. Amir Garrett pitched a scoreless ninth for the first save of his career.

The Reds bullpen had the worst ERA in baseball for much of the season but now ranks 22nd with a 4.83 ERA. It has a 2.61 ERA in the last 13 games.

3. The offense has produced: Starting with the 10-5 victory Sunday in St. Louis, the Reds have scored 26 runs in four games. They scored 27 runs in the nine games prior to this winning streak.

Seven players have combined to hit nine home runs in the last four games: Brian Goodwin (2), Eugenio Suarez, Aristides Aquino, Votto (2), Tyler Stephenson, Mike Moustakas and Tucker Barnhart:

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4. They are making fewer mistakes: The Reds made one error in the four games and did not allow an unearned run. In fact, they haven’t allowed an unearned run in the last nine games. That’s their longest stretch of the season by three games.

Overall, the Reds have done enough to play meaningful games in September. The schedule gets tougher after this series against the Pirates.

The Reds play three games at home, starting Friday, against the Chicago White Sox (32-16), who have the second-best record in baseball behind the Los Angeles Dodgers (34-15). The Reds also close the season with a three-game series on the road against the Minnesota Twins (30-20), one of six teams in baseball with 30 or more victories.

“We’ve just got to keep it going,” Garrett said Tuesday. “We’re playing some good baseball. Things are starting to click finally. I think we smell some playoff baseball right around the corner. We’ve got to lock it in and bear down and just come together. I’m proud of this team.”

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