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Reds' strong year ends with struggles, change

Cincinnati drops final five games before Wild Card loss, leading to new manager

CINCINNATI -- The outcome and ramifications from the 2013 season showed both how far the Reds have come as a good team, but also how much farther they have to go to be a great one.

Making the postseason for the third time in four years and winning 90 games was certainly commendable. But failing to win a single playoff series -- or in the case of this year, one game -- left nothing but bitter disappointment.

There were certainly many positive individual seasons, and moments, from Reds players.

Jay Bruce had another 30-homer season while driving in a career-high 109 runs, and he showed continued growth as a power-hitter.

The epitome of the Reds' go-for-it offseason maneuvering a year ago, Shin-Soo Choo lay claim on the leadoff spot and was arguably the team's Most Valuable Player.

Like Choo, Joey Votto was consistently getting on base and taking what pitchers gave him -- which was often not much to hit. Although some complained that Votto didn't drive in enough runs with 73 RBIs, he led the NL with a .435 on-base percentage. Pitchers from Mat Latos to Mike Leake to Bronson Arroyo enjoyed solid seasons.

And once again, Homer Bailey delivered greatness of performance in the form of his second no-hitter in as many seasons.

From a year the featured numerous highs and lows, here are five of the biggest storylines from the Reds' 2013 season.

5. A foreboding injury

It seemed like your average routine headfirst slide into third base, until Ryan Ludwick didn't get up. On Opening Day vs. the Angels, the Reds left fielder was trying to advance from first to third on a hit. During the slide, Ludwick's right arm got caught under his body. The result was a separated shoulder and surgery to repair a torn labrum that put him out for four months.

The injury had multiple reverberations. Lost was the Reds' cleanup hitter that had 26 home runs and 80 RBIs the previous year. The team's No. 2 hitter, Brandon Phillips, moved to fourth most of the season, which created a void in the two-hole that was never solved. Ludwick's replacement, Chris Heisey, soon endured a hamstring injury and missed time. The Reds were down to a pair of rookies -- Donald Lutz and Derrick Robinson -- at times to pick up the slack.

On top of that, the Reds' lost Ludwick's energizing clubhouse leadership in the process. With Scott Rolen also not brought back after the 2012 season, there was a void of leaders.

"We lacked a vocal leader. We lacked a glue," reliever Sam LeCure said in December.

4. Pitchers picking up pitchers

Not all of the Reds' injuries meant doom for the team, as the club found several members of the pitching staff elevate their profiles in the absence of others. Ace Johnny Cueto endured three stints on the disabled list because of a strained right oblique muscle. No. 2 pitcher Latos became a worthy ace himself, as he went 14-7 with a 3.16 ERA in 32 starts. Bailey returned with another 200-inning season, and on July 2 vs. the Giants, he spun his second no-hitter after having one near the end of the 2012 season at Pittsburgh. Bailey was the first pitcher to be responsible for the Majors' last two no-hitters since Nolan Ryan in 1974-75.

Rookie left-hander Tony Cingrani took Cueto's spot and came out strong. Cingrani was 7-4 with a 2.77 ERA in his 18 starts while delivering some sizzling performances, including 11 strikeouts over six innings for a win at Washington on April 28.

In the bullpen, the Reds were missing both setup men -- lefty Sean Marshall and righty Jonathan Broxton -- for much of the season. Lefty Manny Parra and right-handers like LeCure, J.J. Hoover and Alfredo Simon stepped up in the late innings in their places.

3. Run Billy, run

Much like closer Aroldis Chapman brought a jolt to fans at Great American Ball Park in the ninth inning, September callup Billy Hamilton did likewise just by emerging from the dugout to pinch-run. Hamilton, the Reds' top prospect, was summoned to bring his speed as a late-inning threat on the bases. He delivered.

Hamilton was 13-for-14 in steals and was the first player in modern Major League history to notch a steal in each of his first four games. When in the lineup for a Sept. 18 game at Houston, he became the first big leaguer in the live ball era (since 1920) to record four steals in his first start. For the month, Hamilton scored two game-winning runs, a go-ahead run in extra innings and a game-tying run while batting .368.

2. I Choo-Choo choose you

When the Reds completed a three-team trade last December to land Choo, they hoped he'd bring life to what had previously been lousy production from the leadoff spot. Choo did that and more.

Choo batted .285 with 21 home runs, 54 RBIs and 107 runs. He led all Major League leadoff hitters during his one season in Cincinnati with 116 walks and a .423 on-base percentage that trailed only teammate Votto overall in the NL. Choo was also hit 26 times by a pitch, establishing a new club record.

"At pretty much the highest level possible," Bruce said, "when it comes to being on base and being efficient and getting the offense going, he's kind of been the cog that makes the wheel go."

1. Falling down at the finish line

For much of the 2013 season, the Reds seemed to lack the edge, or the energy, they had during NL Central division title runs in 2010 and '12. This past year, despite a still respectable 90-win season, they had to settle for third place behind the Cardinals and Pirates. But it was the way the season ended that cast a pall over everything.

Cincinnati dropped its final five regular-season games and limped into the NL Wild Card Game, which it also dropped at Pittsburgh. The offense failed to score more than three runs in any of the six losses, including a shutout at the hands of the sub-.500 Mets.

"We choked," Phillips said after the Wild Card Game loss. "I don't care how my teammates feel about what I am saying now, because it's truth. Either you win or you go home."

The way the year ended cost manager Dusty Baker his job after six seasons. Bryan Price was elevated from pitching coach to manager.

"It wasn't his fault we fell asleep down the stretch," LeCure said of Baker. "You see somebody lost his job over this, I hope we as players take some responsibility for that. It's not just about us. It's about the people that give their time and effort. We go out and play for them also, and the fans."

And now the Reds will be playing for Price, a first-time manager charged with taking the Reds beyond just reaching the postseason in 2014.

"It was somewhat of a shocker to fall out of the playoff race in 2012 and not come back even more hungry to do damage in 2013," Price said.

A sentiment shared by many, indeed.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon.
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