Will they make it? Can the surprising team of the summer be the surprising party crasher of October?
“It’s a resilient bunch,” reliever Lucas Sims said.
It’s also a bunch that now faces the final 20 games of the season, starting Friday, against, in order, the St. Louis Cardinals (three games) at home, Detroit Tigers (three) and New York Mets (three) on the road, Minnesota Twins (three) and Pittsburgh Pirates (three) at home, Cleveland Guardians (two) and Cardinals (three more) on the road.
Only the Twins among those teams has a winning record.
“We are very composed right now,” outfielder Will Benson said, “which is awesome going into this long stretch of pretty important games.”
Thursday also is the first of five days off sprinkled into the final stretch.
The Reds were a half-game behind the Miami Marlins for the final National League wild-card position heading into their day off.
“We’re really just putting our heads at this point and just trying to figure out a way to win today,” Spencer Steer said.
So about all those questions at the top for a team looking for its first postseason berth in a full season since 2013 – and maybe even its first postseason series win in 28 years?
These are the 10 big questions for the final 20 games:
1. Do the Reds have enough in the tank – not to mention enough pitching – to take care of business during a final three weeks with one of the softest schedules among rival playoff hopefuls?
No. But they might very quickly, with the anticipated returns from the COVID IL this weekend of key reliever Fernando Cruz and Opening Day starter Hunter Greene, who’s scheduled to start Sunday. Starter Brandon Williamson could be back from the COVID list as soon as Tuesday in Detroit — the same day the Reds expect middle-of-the-order glue guy Jonathan India back from a six-week foot injury.
Given how they handled a 9-8 stretch against mostly playoff contenders, with an increasingly depleted roster, leading up to this final sprint, that might be enough to get it done. Heck, they won four out of five — including three walk-off wins — with an entire starting rotation left of guys who were in the minors on June 4.
And, besides, they haven’t had enough pitching all year to do what they’ve done.
2. How do they avoid the classic “trap-game” mentality now that they have a chance to exhale against “lesser” teams?
Two words, according to Benson: “No mercy.” After losing to Seattle Wednesday night to settle for a series win against the team they knocked out of first in the AL West, Benson said he’s looked at the remaining schedule and believes the key is to “knock them out as early as possible” by scoring quickly and adding on. No more come-from-behind nonsense in this stretch.
“It’s just really coming out and showing no mercy,” he said. “We don’t have time to really mess around. Let’s just put it on them and go about our business.”
3. Will second baseman Matt McLain (oblique) or pitcher Graham Ashcraft (toe) return from injuries before the end of this stretch, never mind any possible playoffs?
“The plan is still to get back and play [by the end of the regular season],” said McLain, who has had no setbacks in his early rehab work, including running drills integrated into the program Wednesday for the first time. He also has never had a muscle strain or pull in his life, “so I really have no clue.”
The team says the best-case scenario is that its best hitter since a May 15 debut and its best pitcher since the end of June might be available the final week of the season. But even if they miss that mark in a close call, either one could provide a big postseason boost if the team nabs a berth without them.
4. Has Joey Votto played his last game?
Probably not. Manager David Bell said Wednesday he wouldn’t be surprised to see Votto – who had a setback with his surgically repaired left shoulder – walk in the door one day and say he’s ready. Maybe even as soon as sometime this weekend against the Cardinals. He has spent the last week strengthening the shoulder and taken a lot of batting practice the past week during the homestand.
“I want him back. I want to see him back and see him hitting homers and doing well,” said McLain, echoing what other teammates also said. “It would mean a lot to the team.”
The question could be larger than just this stretch of 20 games. If he doesn’t feel he can come back from the setback, it makes it harder to imagine a scenario in which the former MVP and face of the franchise is back next year (with a $20 million team option pending). He turns 40 Sunday.
5. Can anybody catch Corbin Carroll in the Rookie of the Year race?
No. But don’t sleep on Steer, the rookie who might be this team’s MVP this year for steady, often exceptional, production while being the only regular on the team who has managed to avoid the injured list or spend a day in the minors (missing only five games this season for scheduled rest). And this: He has capably filled in at three infield positions – including everyday work at second in McLain’s absence – and the corner outfield spots in stretches of need despite little experience in the outfield (easily the best fielding versatility on the team this season).
6. Is David Bell the National League manager of the year?
If the Reds finish off this improbable run to reach the playoffs, he might be the favorite. All the injuries, all the rookies, all the pitching problems all year long for this team are going to put him at or near the top of the list. Consider the Reds have won despite a major-league-high 16 big-league debuts this year and a 5.33 starting-rotation ERA that ranks ahead of only crappy Colorado and crappier Oakland in the majors. Some of his top competition could come from his own division in David Ross and Craig Counsell (along with Arizona’s Torey Lovullo and Miami’s Skip Schumaker).
7. Will Alexis Diaz break Jeff Brantley’s franchise saves record?
No. Heading into August, the Reds’ lone All-Star looked like he had a good chance to track down the Cowboy’s 1996 record of 44 – until the team’s August slump meant only four save opportunities since then (3 for 4). He needs nine to tie with 20 games left. Can the Reds provide enough save opportunities? Maybe. Would he be used frequently enough to get that many saves down the stretch? Extremely doubtful. He already has shown signs of fatigue more recently as his career-high workload mounts.
8. Will anybody in the Reds bullpen still be standing at the end of the season?
No. Three of the top eight players in the National League in games are Reds, and it would be four if not for Alex Young’s recent hamstring injury.
But what a way to go.
9. Is there such thing as being too inexperienced for a pennant race and playoffs?
A lot of the guys in the clubhouse have the same answer to this one: “I don’t know.” How could they? Most of them have never been through this in their careers.
“I don’t know if you can tell,” said Nick Martini, who actually has postseason experience as a 2018 rookie. “But I feel like a lot of these guys are very confident, and I feel like there isn’t a lot that’s going to bother them.”
10. Will Elly De La Cruz eventually reach base (hits+walks+HBP) more often than he strikes out this rookie season?
No chance. But who cares? The fastest player in baseball, with the strongest infield arm in the game, also has easy range at short and 450-foot power lurking in almost every swing. “A toolshed,” as one rival exec describes him – with the ability to strike out three times and then transform a game in an eye blink with his fourth try. That last part makes him the symbol, if not the essence, of this team.
In other words: Enjoy the ride.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: 10 questions for Cincinnati Reds final 20 games of MLB season
Source: Yahoo Sports