With the Major League Baseball playoffs starting this evening, there are some usual suspects in the title contention picture.
The defending champion New York Yankees are ready for a repeat, while the Philadelphia Phillies seek their third consecutive World Series appearance—a feat not accomplished since the Yankees made four straight trips to the Fall Classic from 1998 to 2001.
But there is one team that could surprise baseball fans, just as they’ve been doing throughout the season.
The Cincinnati Reds, who were hardly a blip on the radar in April, have a legitimate chance to make a run to the World Series.
Making their first trip to the postseason since 1995, the Reds (91-71) were not the consensus pick to win the National League Central Division at the outset of the season.
Out of a panel of 36 ESPN baseball experts, just three predicted the Reds would win their division, while one other, Matthew Berry, foresaw them taking the wild card.
But, having seen a lot of potential in the Reds the past couple of seasons, I felt it was only a matter of time before the team emerged as a contender in the National League.
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“The time is now,” outfielder Jonny Gomes told ESPN’s Karl Ravech on Sunday. “We can’t look down the road or into the future.
“We’ve got to look to win every inning of every game.”
The mentality Gomes emphasizes is definitely a positive one for any baseball club seeking a world title.
But winning a World Series requires more than a solid team mindset-. You also need to have the on-field talent and depth to compete with the league’s other elite teams.
Over the past few years, the Reds have accrued these necessary ingredients.
Now in his third full season, MVP candidate and first baseman Joey Votto has emerged as one of the top players in the game. Alongside Albert Pujols, Votto vied for the Triple Crown all season, batting .323 with 37 home runs and 112 RBIs.
Veteran closer Francisco Cordero also enjoyed a strong regular season, finishing third in the National League with 40 saves, while 40-year-old reliever Arthur Rhodes defied time by compiling a stingy 2.32 ERA in 68 appearances.
Another key to the Reds’ success has been their acquisition of proven position players with playoff experience.
In 2009, the Reds dealt for third baseman Scott Rolen, a 15-year veteran and integral component of the St. Louis Cardinals’ 2006 world champion team. Although Rolen is no longer a perennial all-star, he still hit .290 with 20 home runs and 84 RBIs this season and possesses 32 games of postseason experience.
Before the start of this season, the Reds acquired the secret recipe for winning division titles: shortstop Orlando Cabrera.
Between 2004 and 2010, Cabrera has been a part of five different teams that have combined for five division titles and one World Series victory.
Another thing the Reds have on their side—as do the other National League teams—is home field advantage in the World Series.
Since 2003, in attempt to transform it into more than just an exhibition game, the winning league of the All-Star game has been awarded home field advantage in the World Series. Between 2003 and 2009, the American League completely dominated the midsummer classic and gave the AL champion home field advantage each year.
But this July, the National League finally prevailed, 3-1, earning the NL champion home field advantage in the World Series for the first time since 2001.
If the Reds are to reap the benefits of home field advantage, they must first advance past NL competition—namely the defending champion Phillies, who Cincinnati will play in the NL Division Series.
The City of Brotherly Love was in a state of angst for much of the summer, as Philadelphia chased Atlanta for the NL East crown.
But the Phillies caught fire after the all-star break and finished the season with the MLB’s best record at 97-65.
The Phillies are undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with, but the Reds—armed with veterans like Rolen, Cabrera, Arroyo and Jim Edmonds—can challenge Philadelphia’s playoff experience.
Additionally, Cincinnati’s deep lineup and balanced pitching staff make them a threat to contend with the Phillies over the course of a five-game series.
ESPN analyst and former New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine thinks the Reds have an outside chance to upset the Phillies, he said on ESPN Sunday night.
“Now that they’re healthy and playing well, the Phillies will be tough to beat,” Valentine said. “What Cincinnati has done all year is play together, and their infield gives them a chance [in this series].”
The Reds also have 45 comeback victories, (third in MLB) indicating they will not go away late in games—regardless of their opponent.
“The Phillies can’t overlook the Reds because of their ability to come from behind late,” ESPN analyst and former Philly John Kruk said during the same broadcast.
The only potential weakness that could contribute to the Reds’ demise would be their third-year manager, Dusty Baker.
In 2002, Baker and the San Fransisco Giants were just nine outs away from a world championship, but dropped the final two World Series games, and consequently the championship, to the Anaheim Angels.
The very next year, as the Cubs’ manager, Baker found himself immersed in a similar scenario, this time in the NLCS.
Although the Cubs were five outs away from the World Series in Game 6, they dropped that game and the series to the Florida Marlins.
Baker will either be unable to make necessary maneuvers in critical games, or he will have learned valuable lessons from his failures that will lead him to make better decisions this postseason. We will likely learn which one of these is the case in the weeks to come.
Regardless of how they ultimately fare in the playoffs, having a team with such a rich tradition and history like the Reds back in contention is a positive for baseball.
The Reds-Phillies series begins Oct. 6 at 5 p.m. on TBS.