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So it comes down to the Pittsburgh Pirates (again)

Once again, it’s the Reds division rivals who stand in the way of any success this year.

Pittsburgh Pirates vs Cincinnati Reds, 2013 National League Wild Card Playoff Set Number: X157013 TK1 R11 F84

How do you remember the 2013 Cincinnati Reds?

Do you remember the 2013 Cincinnati Reds, even?

Prior to the rebuild reboot, prior to the pains and frustrations of mounting 90+ loss seasons, and prior to whatever baseball has become in the midst of this multi-year pandemic, there was a time when the Cincinnati Reds provided an abundance of joy around these parts. When I look back on those good times, though, I persistently find myself fawning over the breakthrough 2010 season, with the dynamic 2012 year and its eventual poorly-timed injuries getting the bulk of my focus.

The 2013 Reds seemed like the tail-end of those good times from the start, even though they swung a major deal to add a stud in Shin-Soo Choo and the year began with so, so much promise. Choo was a one-year rental destined for a big payday that wouldn’t come from the Reds ownership, while rotation stalwart Bronson Arroyo was ticketed for free agency at season’s end, too. Dusty Baker was operating as a lame-duck manager, and while the club was firmly dedicated to winning games that year, it sure had sentiments of a last hurrah for much of that core from the first pitch of Opening Day.

A late-season slump saw them stagnate, and they fell into the expanded playoffs thanks to the one-game NL Wild Card round, one that saw them pitted against the emerging Pittsburgh Pirates and MVP Andrew McCutchen with that era’s existence on the line. A raucous PNC crowd, a rattled Johnny Cueto, and an abysmal 9-inning offensive showing later, and the 2013 Reds were kaput.

The 2010-2013 Reds were kaput. Winning baseball in Cincinnati, though we didn’t fully realize it at the time, was kaput.

These, now, are the Rebooted Reds, the ones built on the platform after the last iteration was torn completely down. This is what Reds fans suffered through for five-plus years to get to, what the front office and ownership put together as their long-plan. It’s the second year of ramping up, what could be the second straight year of ‘playoff’ baseball (if you’re of the ilk who considers how 2020 shook out to be ‘playoff’ baseball). Though as the previous iteration of ‘being good in a small market’ taught us, these are not often windows that stay open the same way for long.

The 2021 Reds are not a perfect parallel to the 2013 club, but there are parallels. David Bell, for instance, is a lame-duck manager at the moment. Nick Castellanos is almost certainly set to opt-out of his contract and reach free agency at season’s end, while the ~$18 million of team options on Wade Miley and Tucker Barnhart have not yet had a whisper publicly after the team got brutally frugal last offseason with other key pieces. This year has been good, at times, but much like with 2013 it hasn’t exactly lived up to the once-loftier expectations, this late-season slump threatening to derail it altogether.

Much like in 2013, it’s now the Pittsburgh Pirates who stand as the single biggest roadblock to the Reds making any sort of hay. This time, though, it’s no Pirate juggernaut, with no MVPs or packed PNC Park. Instead, it’s just an odd scheduling quirk, one that has the Reds set to face the last-plate Bucs in 9 of their final 18 games of the regular season, setting the stage for drama for a Pirates club that has otherwise been devoid of said stage for months already.

Much like in 2013, it has come to this for the Reds because they couldn’t take care of business elsewhere. The 2013 Reds were 1.5 games back of the NL Central lead as late as September 7th and just 2.0 games back on September 23rd, only to lose their final 5 games of the regular season to sink into being the road club in the single Wild Card game.

The final 3 losses of that stretch were against the Pirates, by the way. The final 3 games the 2021 Reds play in the regular season are against the Pirates, too. And honestly, I don’t know what’s the bigger ask- beating a good 2013 Pirates team in a lone game, or beating a bad Pirates team enough over 9 games to slap a band-aid over the fact that they couldn’t take care of business against anyone else down the stretch in 2021.

It’s a different year, and certainly a different era of Reds baseball. There’s even enough burgeoning young talent at the big league level and in the upper minors to rest more comfortably on the idea that things will still be pretty damn fine in 2022 even if (when) the Reds again choose to be brutally frugal again. It’s just odd that once again, in a rare year where the Reds have managed to finally make a snippet of noise, it’s the Pittsburgh Pirates who are the club that stands directly in the way of even that smallest bit of success coming to fruition.

It begins tomorrow, as the Reds open a 3-game series in PNC.