Just 18 games stand between the Cincinnati Reds and the end of their 2017 season. A quick check of the National League Central standings suggests that, on the surface at least, those games aren’t going to mean a whole heckuva lot in the grand scheme of things.
Indeed, Saturday’s loss to the New York Mets cinched another losing season for the Reds, the 82nd loss statistically binding this third rebuilding season to being measured in more intangible ways than merely wins and losses. But if you look a little bit higher in those standings, you’ll see that the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, and Chicago Cubs are in a cat fight for the division title, a race that’s become increasingly more competitive as the National League West powers continue to run away with the Wild Card spots.
Cross-reference those standings with the final three weeks of Cincinnati’s season, and you may notice that cat fight has a pile of overlap with the remaining Reds schedule.
12 of the final 18 games the Reds will play this year will come against the Cardinals, Brewers, and Cubs, including the entirety of the final 6 game sprint to the finish. In other words, while winning the division outright is completely out of the question at this point for Cincinnati, determining which team gets to claim the spot in the postseason is something the Reds will very much help control.
There are several potential ramifications in play in this scenario.
Hammering the Cardinals in the 6 remaining contests would go a long way towards ensuring St. Louis misses the playoffs for a second consecutive year, an outcome that may well push the club towards massive change. Speculation has surrounded manager Mike Matheny all season, with a public spat between he and star Yadier Molina paralleling consistent speculation about replacing him as manager altogether.
Should the final 3 games of the season against the Cubs still carry significant importance, the Reds could potentially end the season of the most recent World Series champs, an outcome that would shock the pants off all of us if you could teleport the news back to our March editions. Poking that bear in such a significant manner could also alter the division for years to come, as it just might prompt Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to use their franchise’s incredible financial resources to overwhelm the free agent market, bringing in a litany of high-dollar pitchers to replace the departing Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester.
If anything, I think I’m pulling for a combination of those two outcomes, one that plucks enough games from those two clubs to allow the upstart Brewers to win the division. Doing so without Jimmy Nelson for the rest of the year will be increasingly difficult, but it would clearly reveal that smaller market, rebuild-from-the bottom clubs actually have a path back to the playoffs despite the everpresent Cubs and Cards.
There’s also surely something to be gained between the ears of the collective Reds, too. While their season will end on October 1st regardless of the results of the next three weeks, the ability to play in that kind of hypercompetitive atmosphere against multiple division rivals could, in theory, go a long way on the motivation scale. Every current player the Reds will have beyond this year not named Joey Votto has yet to experience playoff-type atmosphere at the highest level, and this will absolutely be the closest taste they’ll have had access to so far. Each win they can muster against these squads, each quality start a rookie pitcher can log under pressure might well be the kind of filed away information this club can use to help slingshot themselves back into contention for a playoff spot of their own in the near future.
The Reds picked up manager Bryan Price’s 2018 option despite a multi-year barrage of losing, but they did so presumably under the premise that from here towards the end of that contract the losing begins to stop. If ever there were a juicy scenario with which to begin winning consistently, knocking the bigwigs of the division out of playoff contention is surely that. And what a platform for heading into the most important offseason in recent memory that would be for the Reds.