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Reds left feeling unfulfilled for second straight year

Struggles at end of campaign lead to disappointing loss in NL Wild Card Game

CINCINNATI -- The offseason soul searching began much earlier than desired once again for the Reds after being bounced from the postseason with Tuesday's National League Wild Card Game defeat to the Pirates.

Last year's exit from the NL Division Series after a 97-win season prompted action from the front office in adding a leadoff hitter in Shin-Soo Choo via a trade and re-signing left fielder Ryan Ludwick and reliever Jonathan Broxton as free agents. The team had a win-it-all approach and seemed set up to do just that.

Just making the playoffs again was nowhere near close enough. This time around, right fielder Jay Bruce believes it's on himself and his teammates to make this right for next year.

"Us as players have to find a way. In my opinion, it's not on anybody else to hold themselves responsible," said Bruce, who led the team with 30 homers and a career-best 109 RBIs. "We have to figure out a way to take the next step. We changed the culture around here. We're a winning club now. I'm proud of our season in that aspect, but we need to take the next step."

Winning 90 games is a feat most clubs in the league would envy, but this season in the NL Central, it was only third best. The venerable Cardinals and the rejuvenated Pirates made the division the toughest to contend and let the Reds know there would be no easy repeat as champions.

Cincinnati then dealt with issues internally, namely injuries. A simple headfirst slide into third base on Opening Day cost Ludwick four months of the season when he needed right shoulder surgery. The ace, Johnny Cueto, spent three stints on the disabled list because of a strained right lat muscle. The key setup men in the bullpen were also hurt, in lefty Sean Marshall (shoulder) and the right-handed Broxton (elbow, forearm).

Although the pitching staff found ways to overcome its losses, the same could not be said of the lineup. No one matched Ludwick's production from last season out of the left-field spot. When Brandon Phillips went from the second spot to Ludwick's cleanup spot in the order, no one batting second had success. Led by Choo and Joey Votto, the Reds were second in the NL to the Cardinals in on-base percentage (.327) and fourth in hitting with runners in scoring position (.254). But when that big two-out hit was needed, it was tough to come by. The club was 13th in hitting with runners in scoring position and two outs (.203).

"We just need to continue to get better, continue to improve and grow as players," Votto said.

Cincinnati lost the grip of first place on April 23 and never got it back. The sensational 22-3 run it pulled off in the middle of the 2012 season? It never happened.

Neither did the big deep run through the playoffs that so many expected.

"I don't think we ever felt like we got rolling like we did last year," catcher Ryan Hanigan said. "We never played our best baseball."

Record: 90-72, 3rd place in NL Central

Defining moment: On Sept. 20-22, the Reds took two of three games in a road series vs. the Pirates and climbed to within two games of first-place St. Louis and were even with Pittsburgh for the first Wild Card spot. Back at home, the Reds lost two of three to the eliminated Mets and three straight to the Pirates. Including the Wild Card defeat, the 2013 season ended with a thud and six straight losses.

What went right: The rotation was again one of the best in the NL and was third behind the Dodgers and Cardinals in ERA (3.43). The group included three 14-game winners in Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake and three 200 innings pitchers in Latos, Arroyo and Homer Bailey. … Sam LeCure best personified members of the bullpen stepping up amid injuries. LeCure took the ball, usually successfully, in any late-inning situation given. … Bruce shortened his stretches of inconsistency and continued to grow as a power-number producer. He and Phillips gave the Reds 100-RBI teammates for the first time since 1977 … Choo was wildly successful in the leadoff spot and reached base 300 times, joining Votto, who reached safely a club record 316 times for the season.

What went wrong: As mentioned above, injuries and more injuries cast a pall on the season and limited what the club could do. … The No. 2 spot in the lineup was a revolving door, and no one was generally successful as the combination provided a .228 average and .281 on-base percentage. … It was a terrible year defensively for Votto, a former NL Gold Glove winner, who led all Major League first basemen with 14 errors. … Ludwick struggled to find his power after returning from the DL, hitting only two homers in the final month.

Big surprise: While it's hard to equate in any statistical analysis, the Reds simply lacked some of the intangibles that helped them win the division in 2010 and '12. It was noticed that no one assumed the team-leader or tone-setting roles that had been filled in the past by the likes of Scott Rolen and others. Last year, Ludwick took on much that responsibility to provide needed jolts, but when he was hurt this season, few seemed positioned or prepared to keep the team loose amid adversity.

Hitter of the Year: This could go a few different ways, depending on the views of traditional numbers vs. advanced statistics. The one player who seemed to check the most boxes in both disciplines was Choo. While finishing fourth in the Majors in on-base percentage (.423), Choo also batted .285 and was first among all leadoff hitters with 112 walks. He also hit 21 home runs, 34 doubles, had 54 RBIs and stole 20 bases. Choo also provided an as-advertised boost to the leadoff spot that had been missing for years in Cincinnati.

Pitcher of the Year: Latos rarely has his name included among the top young starting pitchers in the game, which has been an oversight. Latos, who turns 26 in December, tied a career high with 14 wins and established a new career mark with 210 2/3 innings. Five times, he was the victim of a blown save. Latos also notched 187 strikeouts and made improvements in his mound presence and his ability to work later into games. His last 12 starts of the season were all at least six innings.

Rookie of the Year: Called up from Triple-A Louisville to replace an injured Johnny Cueto, lefty Tony Cingrani helped the rotation not miss a beat. In 18 starts, Cingrani was 7-4 with a 2.77 ERA, and he worked an additional five games as reliever when Cueto was back. A power pitcher able to reach back for 95-96-mph velocity when he needed it, the 24-year-old Cingrani struck out 120 batters in 104 2/3 innings.

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

Cincinnati Reds, Jay Bruce, Joey Votto