That the Cincinnati Reds sprinted to a 9-run lead in their final Saturday home game of the season was fitting. It was a sprint, something they’ve mastered as they have sped around the bases all season, a rookie in Christian Encarnacion-Strand getting the party started.
Rookies punching down the door and showing their talent - that’s the storyline of the 2023 Cincinnati Reds.
As Saturday showed, however, there’s a whole lot more to a roster than merely finding young, cheap hitters who can mash, the storyline that has become the defining one during the demise of the 2023 Cincinnati Reds.
This was a first place ball club on August 1st, you’ll recall. It was a first place ball club left out to dry by the front office at the trade deadline, one banking on young players who had never once been in that position, let alone been in that position months beyond during the more extensive rigors of a season at the highest level. That bet - if it even was a bet, and not just an early concession that it they didn’t believe in it this year, either - crumbled quickly, inevitable injuries further testing the depth that was never there.
It’s hard for anyone to overcome months without Matt McLain, Jonathan India, Hunter Greene, and Joey Votto. It’s hard to overcome the expectation that Nick Lodolo will return only for him not to, or for the burly workhorse who’s always there - Graham Ashcraft - to be felled by a mere toe in an Achillesian twist.
They were outscored by 31 runs in 28 games during an 11-17 month of August to fall out of first place in the National League Central. They’ve been outscored by 23 runs during 21 September games while going 10-11 and further dropping out of the playoff race. They’ve won more 1-run games than anyone in a long time, often squeaking out victories when they had no business doing so, a method that builds excitement while constantly provoking the thought of there’s no way this is going to last, is it?
That their sprint wasn’t enough yesterday was emblematic of the larger season. That they still tried to punch back with a trio of runs in the 8th and 9th was emblematic of the fight the players they do still have will continue to put forth. That they lost by one - a 1-run game - perfectly tied a bow on how this particular season’s storybook ending was too farfetched for even us to believe.
It’s been emotional. Elly De La Cruz took the sport by storm only to come crashing back to earth like Icarus. Since July 14th, there have been 146 qualified hitters in Major League Baseball, and only Colorado’s Brenton Doyle has a lower wRC+ (27) than Elly’s 52. There’s still ample promise there, obviously, but a mental reset from holy crap, the Reds have the sport’s top prospect to where they are right now is a gap that’s wide and growing. It’s a growth chart that’s being somewhat mimicked by Lodolo in his lost season, and how the club tempers expetations for him heading into 2024 will play out in their hot stove moves.
That’s the ebb to the 12-game win streak’s flow, of course. The emotional aspect of this season absolutely swung positive for a long, long time, its energy fueled by a club devoid of any back-of-the-baseball-card expecations by fans and charting a course we’ve rarely, if ever, seen before. They’d routinely roll out 7 rookies in a single starting lineup and win games. They’d turn to pitchers who’d barely sniffed AA, let alone AAA, and breeze through lineups making ten times as much money. They would, quite literally, run circles around opponents, showing off a roster that, while flawed, was designed perfectly for the new baserunning rules.
If they can find ways to carry over the best aspects of 2023 to 2024, they’ll be on to something. If they can keep a few more guys healthy in 2024 than 2023, they’ll really be rolling, though merely banking on guys being healthier is a foolhardy method to any roster construction. If - and it’s an incredibly big if - they get a cash infusion from their owners to allow the front office to pick up some more proven arms, they might well be on to something big.
As it stands now, they’re wrapping up their home schedule for the 2023 season with one final game against Pittsburgh, one final chance for Votto to don the home red before his Reds career falls into the hands of the frugal ownership’s lap. They’ll finish with quick sets in Cleveland and St. Louis, needing to win ‘em all and hope for two separate miracles along the way. Barring said miracles, however, the 2023 season will wrap with this club having showed promise, showed unexpected poise (at times), and being underfunded when a pristine opportunity to do more presented itself.
I hope we get the opportunity to look back on it as the start of something much, much larger, and not on the missed opportunity we’d waited so, so long to have in the first place. After Saturday’s devastating loss, though, I think it’s clear we’ll be looking back on it in four days and won’t have the chance to wait longer to reflect.