Only three regular season games remain in the 2012 campaign, and the last opponent the Reds will face before heading to the playoffs is a primary NL Central adversary: the St. Louis Cardinals. Thankfully, the division itself has long-since been wrapped up; however, two primary things are now at stake in the NL:
(1) the top seed for the NL playoffs
(2) the fate of the Second NL Wild Card team
Both of those things *could* be decided by this series. The Cardinals, as the host team, are clearly in control of their own destiny for #2. If they win at least one game this series, they will finish no worse than a tie for the 2nd WC spot. The Dodgers, closing out at home in LA against their primary rival SF Giants, face a more difficult climb, relying on a sweep to even have a sniff if the Reds cannot provide the same to them against St. Louis.
The former goal, getting the top seed in the playoffs, is at least partially dependent on the Washington Nationals and how they perform against the Philadelphia Phillies. With the Reds and Nationals now tied, the tie-break scenario is owned by the Nationals for claiming the season series (fairly handily in games played way back in April) in head-to-head play. If the Nationals should sweep the Phillies at home, whatever the Reds may do is rendered moot; however, even one Nationals’ loss opens the possibility to the Reds slipping into the top spot.
What does stand out as intriguing is that the Reds have winning records against at least two of the known playoff teams: San Francisco (4-3) and Atlanta (5-1). The season series is knotted at 6-6 against the Cardinals (pending this series), while the Nationals dominated more soundly (2-5). All of those non-divisional games for the Reds were played before the All-Star Break, before they played their hottest stretch of baseball (granted, against some of the weakest opponents). As of right now, the Reds have seasonal losing records against only a few opponents: the aforementioned Nationals, the Phillies (3-4), and the Dodgers (2-4). The biggest thing in the Reds’ favor on the season? The dominance of the pitching staff. Reds’ pitching as allowed only 582 runs on the season, best in the National League and second-best in the majors (behind only the TB Rays in the AL). Factoring in that the Rays play in a far-more pitching-friendly park (Tropicana Field – pitcher park factor of 95 versus 100 neutral) than the hitter-friendly home of the Reds (Great American Ball Park – pitcher park factor of 106), the stat is made that much more impressive. The counter is that the biggest impediment to potential Reds’ success is scoring runs. Their rank – in the bottom third at 664 runs scored - is driven by an often-anemic offense.
Winning at least 2 of 3 in this closing series does make a statement, if nothing else. It gives credence that this team can win tough games on the road with something at stake. Losing 2 of 3 (or, in a worst-case scenario, being swept) wouldn’t be the kind of “momentum” to ride into divisional series play; however, it’s also not the end of the world if it does happen. The 96 wins this team already has entering play today ties the wins total from 1999 and is also tied for 9th-most in franchise history with that club as well as the “notable” 1919 squad. Getting to the 98+ win mark hasn’t happened since the heyday of the Big Red Machine (early 70′s up to 1976).
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