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Final outcome dampens Reds' brilliant season

CINCINNATI -- The feeling among and about the Reds in 2012 could not have better underscored just how far the franchise's expectations have come in recent years.

Cincinnati won 97 games, buried everyone to win the National League Central by nine games and it felt -- completely unfulfilling. A crushing defeat against the Giants in the five-game NL Division Series was hard to take.

"I thought we were just going to keep going," first baseman Joey Votto said earlier this month. "For us to get knocked out like that, I couldn't even talk about it for a good bit. I still haven't spoken about it, and have no interest in speaking about it. It was just so upsetting and frustrating. When it's in your grasp and for it to fall through is just really disappointing."

Regardless of the final outcome, it was a season filled with several storylines. Here are five of the biggest:

5. Votto, Phillips signed long term
In a span of two weeks, the Reds broke the mold often set for small-market franchises by not only retaining two of their best players, but by giving them huge contracts.

On April 4, just before Opening Day, Votto was signed to the richest contract in Reds history. It was a 10-year, $225 million contract extension through 2023 that came with a $20 million club option for the 2024 season. It was done while the 28-year-old still had two years remaining on his existing deal. The deal was a shocker, as many larger market teams -- and Votto's hometown Toronto Blue Jays -- had hopes of plucking the 2010 NL Most Valuable Player.

Just six days later, All-Star and Gold Glove second baseman Brandon Phillips was extended with a six-year contract worth $72.5 million that keeps him with the Reds through 2017.

4. Pitching staff delivers
For many years since Great American Ball Park opened in 2003, its smallish confines have often made it a place where quality pitching takes a holiday. In 2012, the Reds defied that reputation by having one of the league's bests pitching staffs.

None of the five starters in the rotation missed a start because of injury this season, and a sixth man was needed just once because of a doubleheader. Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake each made at least 30 starts, and all but Leake threw at least 200 innings.

Cueto was overlooked for both All-Star and Cy Young Award consideration, but was a legitimate ace -- as he went 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA.

On Sept. 28 at PNC Park vs. the Pirates during a 1-0 win, Bailey had it all going on. He tossed a no-hitter, the first for the Reds since Tom Browning's perfect game vs. the Dodgers at Riverfront Stadium on Sept. 16, 1988, and the 15th in franchise history. During the 115-pitch effort, Bailey walked one and struck out 10. He only saw one ball leave the infield over the first six innings, as he went on to post the record-tying seventh and final no-hitter in the Majors in 2012.

Meanwhile, Reds relievers led the Majors with a 2.65 ERA, after losing three arms in Spring Training. The most electric of bullpen developments came in the form of Aroldis Chapman -- who notched 38 saves after being promoted to closer on May 20, while also creating ninth-inning buzz not seen in Cincinnati since the Nasty Boys were around.

3. Votto goes down, Reds perk up
The Reds' contending hopes were seemingly dealt a blow in mid-July when it was learned that Votto needed left knee surgery to repair torn cartilage. His time on the disabled list was extended further, when a setback forced a second surgery and caused Votto to miss a total of 48 games.

Without their best hitter, the Reds not only didn't wither away, they rose to the occasion. The club broke off a 22-3 run from July 6-Aug. 4, and was 32-16 during Votto's absence. Several players stepped up, including Ryan Ludwick, Jay Bruce, Phillips and rookie Todd Frazier.

"When Joey went down, it was a different guy every night," Ludwick said in September.

During this stretch, Cincinnati's lead in the NL Central jumped from one game to 8 1/2 games when Votto returned to the lineup.

2. Dusty's health scare
The Reds were putting the finishing touches on an NL Central division title when a health issue threatened their leader and put things in perspective. Reds manager Dusty Baker wasn't feeling well on Sept. 19 at Wrigley Field and was sent to the hospital for some tests.

Baker was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, but that wasn't the worst of it. A couple of days later, as he was about to be discharged from a Chicago hospital, Baker suffered a minor stroke. The 63-year-old skipper missed 11 games, and his absence from the dugout was noticeable -- as the Reds clinched their division and celebrated Bailey's no-hitter.

As he returned for the final three games of the regular season, Baker had lost more than 20 pounds, while gaining renewed appreciation for life.

"I feel more appreciative about my family. I feel truly blessed," Baker said on Oct. 1. "To be in the hospital when you have a mini-stroke, you can't get any more blessed than that."

1. Pain in the NLDS
Injury misfortune found the Reds once more in the postseason, and it was ultimately a blow they could not recover from. A mere eight pitches into his Game 1 start in the NLDS vs. the Giants, Cueto exited with a strained oblique muscle. Sam LeCure and expected Game 3 starter Latos stepped in and pitched brilliantly, as Cincinnati pulled out a win. The team even left San Francisco up, 2-0, in the series after a blowout 9-0 win in Game 2.

The next three games, as well as the series outcome, will be tough to forget for quite some time. A Scott Rolen error in the 10th inning of Game 3 led to a 2-1 loss. Cueto's replacement, Leake, was roughed up in a Game 4 loss.

In Game 5, Latos lost his composure over the umpire's strike zone, leading to a six-run fifth inning that culminated with Buster Posey's grand slam and a 6-4 loss. The Reds staged a rally in the ninth and had Bruce at the plate representing the winning run, before he flied out after a thrilling 12-pitch at-bat.

As much as Cueto's injury put a damper on things, the lack of offense in the final three games hurt the most. The Reds were 3-for-24 (.125) with runners in scoring position in those games, and stranded 28 runners. Votto, with his knee clearly still bothering him, still batted .389 (7-for-18) in the series but drove in no runs.

Since the Division Series became a regular part of the playoffs in 1995, no NL team in 21 previous times had ever blown a 2-0 lead. It's happened only five times out of 43 series overall.

"A lot of people can be mad, of course," Phillips said after the game. "We disappointed ourselves also. We wanted to do it for the city and also do it for ourselves."

Cincinnati Reds, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, Jay Bruce, Aroldis Chapman, Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Mike Leake, Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto