Reds bring strong rotation, momentum into playoffs vs. Braves

For the first time since the start of divisional play in 1969, the Braves will open the postseason against a team they didn’t play in the regular season.

So who are these guys the Braves will meet in a best-of-three opening-round playoff series at Truist Park beginning Wednesday?

The Cincinnati Reds finished in third place in the National League Central, three games behind the division-winning Chicago Cubs and a fraction of a percentage point behind the second-place St. Louis Cardinals. The Reds finished with a 31-29 record by winning 11 of their final 14 games and each of their final five series.

As recently as Sept. 13, they were 20-26 and seemingly a longshot to make the playoffs. But they arrive at the postseason as a daunting opponent, because of the momentum of a strong finish and a starting pitching rotation led by apparent NL Cy Young Award frontrunner Trevor Bauer.

“In the postseason, it has been proven many times that pitching is what carries teams - dominant pitching, guys that can miss bats, guys that can limit damage, guys that throw hard and have good stuff,” Bauer said Monday via Zoom before the Reds worked out at Truist Park. "We believe in our pitching staff.

“Also, our offense has been one of the most unlucky offenses in who-knows-how-long. You can’t stay that unlucky forever," Bauer said. “We’re playing a lot better as a team defensively, putting together good at-bats. The bullpen is pitching great. We’re very confident with where our team is. We feel like we’re peaking at the right time.”

The Reds are in the playoffs – albeit as the No. 7 seed in a field expanded to eight teams – for the first time since 2013, which also was the last time they finished with a winning record.

The Braves haven’t seen the Reds since Aug. 1-4, 2019, when the teams split a four-game series. They didn’t meet during the shortened 2020 regular season because teams played only opponents in their own division and the corresponding division in the other league. Seven of the eight MLB playoff series match teams that didn’t meet in the regular season, the exception being the series between AL East teams Tampa Bay and Toronto.

Any scouting report on the Reds must start with their starting pitching.

They rank fourth among the 30 major league teams in starters' ERA at 3.50, trailing only the Cleveland Indians (3.17), Los Angeles Dodgers (3.29) and San Diego Padres (3.46). The Braves, by comparison, rank 28th in the majors and last in the NL in starters' ERA at 5.51.

The Reds will start Bauer (5-4, NL-leading 1.73 ERA) in Game 1 at noon Wednesday. In 73 innings this season, the 29-year-old right-hander allowed just 41 hits and held opponents to an MLB-low .159 batting average. His 100 strikeouts were the third-most in the majors. He allowed nine home runs, but eight of them with the bases empty.

The Reds' scheduled starter for Game 2 on Thursday is 27-year-old right-hander Luis Castillo (4-6, 3.21 ERA). Their starter for Game 3, if necessary, on Friday will be 30-year-old right-hander Sonny Gray (5-3, 3.70.)

“From day one, we’ve always known our starters are the real strength of our team," Reds manager David Bell said Monday. “This is an opportunity to put that on the field.”

One might logically ask, given the Reds' starting pitching, why they finished only two games above .500 this season. The answer, of course, rests in other facets of the team.

Cincinnati’s offense ranks 27th in the majors in runs scored, last in batting average and 19th in OPS. (The Braves are in the top two in all of those categories.) When the Reds score, it often is accomplished with home runs: They’ve hit 90 homers, the seventh-most in the majors. (The Braves have hit 103, second-most.)

The Reds have three players with double-digit homers – third baseman Eugenio Suarez (15), right fielder Nick Castellanos (14), designated hitter Jesse Winker (12) and first baseman Joey Votto (11) – but only one of the four has a batting average above .226 (Winker at .255).

Cincinnati’s bullpen ranks 17th in the majors in ERA, but has been very good of late. (The Braves' bullpen ranks fourth.) Reds closer Raisel Iglesias, who has allowed only one run in his last eight appearances, has a 2.74 ERA. Amir Garrett and former Brave Lucas Sims both have 2.45 ERAs out of the Cincinnati bullpen.

Mainly, though, the Reds' postseason hopes hinge on starting pitching and momentum.

“When we’re playing the way we’re capable of, we believe we’re a good team," Bell said. "We believe we can be a great team. We believe we can be a championship team.”