Playoff appearance not enough for Reds this season
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CINNATI -- The signals were sent -- both explicitly and implicitly -- from the Reds throughout the 2012 season. And now that Cincinnati has clinched its second National League Central title in three seasons, it's become even clearer.
Just making it to the playoffs this time won't be good enough for this team.
"We've played very successful baseball this year, and we've competed with the best teams at a very high level," first baseman Joey Votto said. "We've done a lot of winning this year, but I think anything but setting the World Series as our standard would be selling ourselves short. Whether we achieve that or not is kind of irrelevant, but that's our goal."
Unlike the Yankees and other postseason perennials, the Reds and their fans haven't experienced playoff baseball very often. This year's foray will mark just the third appearance since winning the World Series in 1990. There was also the 15-year gap between the runs of '95 and 2010.
Two years ago, after winning 91 games and being one of the surprise teams to win a division, Cincinnati's reentry to postseason play was painfully brief for the club.
In the 2010 NL Division Series, the Phillies swept the young and largely inexperienced Reds in three games. They were stunned right from the get-go when Phils ace Roy Halladay pitched a Game 1 no-hitter, only the second no-no in postseason history.
In Game 2, a Reds team known for quality defense committed four errors and allowed four late runs in the loss. In Game 3, the lone game at Cincinnati, Philadelphia lefty Cole Hamels closed out the series with a five-hit shutout.
"Now we've been there, and hopefully we can learn from the mistakes we made in 2010 and go out there and have a good time, and just try to get as many wins as possible," second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "We got no-hit. We got swept. All you can really do is get more hits and score more runs."
The Reds didn't get a chance to redeem themselves in the 2011 postseason, as the club slipped to 79 wins last year. Although the team was banged up, it didn't come close to playing at the high standard of the previous year.
"I think the bottom line is that we're much more prepared this time. I think expectations are higher," right fielder Jay Bruce said. "I felt like in 2010, we were more like our hair was on fire. We started playing super well. All of a sudden, we were in first place and we won. We were thrown into the whole deal. Then in '11, we disappointed.
"A combination of '10 and '11 has prepared us for this year in the sense that we know it's not just going to happen. But we also know we are very capable. We've done a very good job this year of understanding that and capitalizing on every opportunity we've had. We're a much better team."
It wasn't even 2012 yet when the Reds became aggressive and made their first moves to improve. Two December trades purged the system of top Minor Leaguers, as three prospects and starter Edinson Volquez were sent to the Padres for a No. 2 rotation man in Mat Latos. Lefty Travis Wood and two others went to the Cubs for lefty reliever Sean Marshall about a week later.
The club tried to upgrade at closer by signing Ryan Madson in January, and it hoped there was some power left in the bat of outfielder Ryan Ludwick when it signed him. Even at the 2012 non-waiver Trade Deadline when Cincinnati was in first place, it added bullpen depth with Jonathan Broxton.
At various points, some of the best laid plans wound up on the disabled list. The first one was a stunner when Madson blew out his elbow in the early days of Spring Training and needed season-ending Tommy John surgery. Setup man Nick Masset went down in the middle of camp with a shoulder injury, and he wouldn't pitch an inning this season for the Reds. Lefty reliever Bill Bray was limited by injuries to just 8 2/3 innings this season.
The changes forced Cincinnati to move Aroldis Chapman out of an expected rotation spot and into a setup relief role. By May 20, Chapman was promoted to closer and quickly became one of baseball's best.
How did the bullpen respond overall? Reds relievers, led by Chapman, stepped up and currently own the best ERA in the Majors.
By far, the injury that could have posed the biggest threat to the team's chances came in mid-July, when Votto missed 48 games with a left knee injury that required two surgeries to repair torn cartilage.
Again, it didn't slow anything down, as the Reds went 22-3 over a 25-game stretch from July 6-Aug. 4 and 32-16 in Votto's absence.
"When Joey went down, they looked at each other and said, 'Who's going to do it?'" Reds CEO Bob Castellini said. "'Guess what? I guess it's going to be you and you and you and me.' That's the way these guys are. They were covering everybody's backs."
From Ludwick's bounce-back year to rookie Todd Frazier's emergence to the veterans like Brandon Phillips and Bruce, several filled the Votto void. The pitching staff, led by ace Johnny Cueto, hunkered down and kept games close to give their offense a chance to be in striking distance.
"No year is easy, but we've had so much [better] health this year compared to last year," Votto said. "More often than not, we were getting hurt in safe places. With the recent injuries, we weren't one game back or one game ahead. We've had a lot of luck in that regard."
Even before the Reds stayed together and had success on the field, they moved quick to maintain stability for years to come. Votto was signed to a 10-year, $225 million extension before Opening Day, and a short time later, Phillips inked a six-year, $72 million contract -- astounding contracts and commitments for a small-market team to make.
It only underscored the desire from ownership -- and the city of Cincinnati -- that nothing less than winning would do. While all the pieces are in place to keep the window of competitiveness open for years, it can't be taken for granted.
And it isn't.
"Two years ago, we were in the playoffs. This year, we're going to go deep in the playoffs," Castellini said.