Why it’s now or never for the Cincinnati Reds’ playoff hopes

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The Cincinnati Reds are putting together their best regular season in eight years. While they’re eight games back of the Milwaukee Brewers for first place in the National League Central, the Reds are firmly in the NL Wild Card mix.

At 64-55, they’re just 2.5 games behind the San Diego Padres for the second NL Wild Card seeding. This team has possessed the talent to make the playoffs for three years, and this is the best product they’ve put forward under manager David Bell.

Opportunity can be scarce in sports, and the Reds have to seize the opportunity at hand. Here’s why it’s now or never for the Cincinnati Reds.

Cincinnati Reds’ offense has finally materialized

cincinnati reds playoff hopes
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In years past, the offensive talent was present for the Reds. The execution was not. Now both are present.

This team is flat-out raking at the plate. Joey Votto, Jesse Winker, Eugenio Suarez and Nick Castellanos all have 20-plus home runs apiece. Winker has produced at an MVP level, hitting for power while consistently putting the ball in play. The same goes for Castellanos when he has been healthy. Votto has been his steady hitting-self.

Rookie second baseman Jonathan India is roping with an .860 OPS to his name. Catchers Tucker Barnhart and Tyler Stephenson have been one of the best backstop combos in MLB. Mike Moustakas recently returned from a heel injury.

On the whole, the Reds’ offense entered Monday fourth in MLB in hits (1,019) and OPS (.766), fifth in batting average (.253), sixth in home runs (164) and runs (600) and ninth in walks (417). This unit is hitting for both average and power, producing runs with consistency, working the count and has the upside to swing the sticks at an even higher level.

For example, Suarez is blasting home runs but also hitting just .173 this season. Moustakas could inevitably get into a groove with more reps. The backbone of the Reds’ rebuild has finally become its strength.

The Cincinnati Reds’ starting rotation has to pick up the slack

cincinnati reds: tyler mahle
Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Tyler Mahle (30) pitches in the first inning of the MLB baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. Cincinnati Reds Pittsburgh Pirates

The Reds’ strength in recent memory has been their starting pitching, which hasn’t exactly been the case this season. Luis Castillo has pitched better of late but been shaky on the year as a whole.

Once a shiny reclamation project for the Reds, Sonny Gray has been dull in the 18 starts he has made in 2021, as he owns a 4.47 ERA.

Like the Reds’ offense, though, the starting rotation has the upside for better performance. Why? Castillo is 26 and has been an ace in the past, and Gray is a proven commodity in his prime. This is a respectable rotation but little more at the moment. The individuals keeping it afloat are Wade Miley, Tyler Mahle and rookie Vladimir Gutierrez. All three of the aforementioned hurlers own ERAs under four and have pitched efficiently this season.

Miley is pitching arguably the best baseball of his career, inducing weak contact and painting the strike zone. Mahle continues to grow into a reliable, top-of-the-rotation starter.

Meanwhile, Guttierez has held his own in his first licks at the big-league level, limiting damage and keeping the Reds in games. More reliable versions of Castillo and Gray make the Reds’ starting rotation great and the team therefore a legitimate player in the NL. There’s no margin for error in the Reds’ second-half playoff push.

It only gets harder for the Cincinnati Reds past 2021

Here’s the deal: it’s difficult to envision the Reds being an NL contender in the years to come if they don’t precisely duplicate what they’re doing in the batter’s box and their rotation doesn’t return to being an elite force.

Last season, the Reds had the chance to ambush the Atlanta Braves in the best-of-three Wild Card Round. Their starting pitchers surrendered a combined one run across 13 innings in Games 1 and 2. To complement those efforts, their offense tallied zero runs.

The preliminary forecast for the Reds in 2022 is murky. Milwaukee has a World Series-caliber ballclub while it’s reasonable to expect the rival St. Louis Cardinals to look to make another impact trade to get back in the playoff mix.

Elsewhere, the NL West should still have a trio of playoff-caliber teams in the San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and Padres. One figures that the NL East has a pair of reputable teams with 2021 being a bizarre anomaly.

Find out where the Cincinnati Reds stand in our most-recent MLB power rankings

The Padres haven’t been as advertised this season, as select parts of their offense have underwhelmed and the starting rotation has left much to be desired. Could the Padres play better down the stretch? They very well may do as such, but the hype surrounding their ball club is meaningless at the moment, as the Reds are no worse than the Friars and have more of a desperation when it comes to cracking the Wild Card Game.

Anything can happen in a one-game playoff where the home team, which would presumably be the Dodgers, has everything to lose. Joey Votto is 37 and not getting any younger. The Reds are running out of time, and this is their best chance to break through and do damage in October.