When the Reds' outcome is ruined by the National League's worst club on the season's final day, one wonders if the offseason will be any better.
When the final day of the regular season goes down so dramatically, perhaps setting the tone for the entire body of playoffs to follow, one wonders if the playoffs will be worthy.
It's hard to imagine which club must have felt worst when the final bad umpiring call of the season ended the final regular season game on Oct. 1 in Phoenix. Four different major league clubs suffered four different kinds of heartbreak on the woolliest final day in years.
When it ended, the St. Louis Cardinals crawled into the playoffs with a home-field loss, knowing the Houston Astros literally threw away their chance to extend the regular season with a loss in Atlanta. Given a chance to redeem their mediocre season, the Astros made two infield errors, costing two runs and their only remaining chance in a 3-1 loss.
The Twins, who went to the Metrodome Sunday, bags packed for a trip to New York, happily unpacked when the Detroit Tigers blew a three-run lead at home against Kansas City. The Tigers loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the 11th, needing only to sneak in one runner to open their playoffs with the home-field advantage against Oakland.
But the Tigers, baseball's hottest club through July and the AL Central's first-place club until the very end, couldn't finish off the last-place Royals. Losing five straight to end the season, including three to the Royals, the Tigers play the New York Yankees as the wild card and, therefore, the road club.
The Los Angeles Dodgers must have cursed the umpiring crew in Phoenix, which couldn't decide if the final out between the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres was supposed to be a force play or a tag play. Either way, the crew rang up an out on behalf of the Padres, possibly snatching the National League West title from the Dodgers, who beat the San Francisco Giants earlier in the day.
As a result, the Dodgers are the NL wild card and the road club against the New York Mets, who should easily advance to the World Series. San Diego, the NL West champion, will play with home-field advantage against the faltering Cardinals.
In Pittsburgh, the Reds played the Pittsburgh Pirates with a chance to finish 81-81, thereby ending their streak of consecutive losing seasons at five. They couldn't do it. The Reds, who finished a wasted 2005 season as the best offensive club in the National League, finished their 2006 season with a 1-0 loss. Call it progress anyway.
The National League Central championship finally decided for 2006, the division already looks wide open in 2007. The credibility of that assertion should raise hope in Reds fans, but the few who hung with them until the end, knowing this September wasn't designed to eliminate them so easily, must feel terribly disappointed. The playoffs were right there for the Reds, who just let them go.
The Reds finished a mere 3 1/2 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central and only 7 games behind Los Angeles for the wild card. By the time the Cardinals gave the Reds and Astros hope with a seven-game losing streak in the season's last couple weeks, the Reds already shot themselves down with eight losses in 11 games.
When the Cardinals' bid for infamy kept the Reds within striking distance 30 hours before the season's end, the Reds failed to score in two games against the last-place Pirates.
On Aug. 22, the Reds were 66-60. If they had just broken even the rest of the way, including a couple more wins against the Cardinals, they would be taking on the Dodgers today in the playoffs. The Reds walked right up to the verge of mattering again. Next year, perhaps, they'll walk through the door.
When a club that hits and doesn't pitch trades a bit of hitting for pitching, improvement follows. The Reds still hit more home runs this year than any NL club except Atlanta, they walked more than any NL club except Philadelphia and they stole more bases than any NL clubs except the Dodgers and Mets. But they also rose to seventh in NL staff ERA, walking fewer hitters and pitching more complete games than any staff in the NL.
Look at that inventory of league rankings. Does that look like a club that couldn't manage a winning record? That's kind of the problem with the Reds -- their stats look like a winning club, but their club doesn't.
It's often been said, here and elsewhere, that the name of the game is baseball, and that's precisely what the Reds aren't good at. The game is played on the bases. The Reds, who last year could play at the plate without playing on the pitcher's mound or the bases, now can play at the plate and on the mound but still not the bases.
Base running and its counterpart, defense, remain bugaboos for the Reds. Serious question: Who's the Reds' best defensive player? It might be Junior Griffey, and it might not.
Griffey isn't what he used to be in center field, and the guys flanking him aren't what he'll be at age 45. Ryan Freel makes plays, but he certainly doesn't make them look easy. When Brandon Phillips and Edwin Encarnacion are on your club's short list of best defensive players, you can upgrade at a lot of positions.
But Reds fans should take heart from General Manager Wayne Krivsky's former club, the Twins. Through player development and shrewd trades, the Twins have been able to pitch and play baseball for years. This year, they can even hit.
Which is why the Twins are likely to join the Mets in the World Series.
Krivsky will be watching, taking notes, and then some. The offseason could be good news for the Reds.
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