Reds fall short in playoff push, but ‘there’s plenty to be proud of’

ST. LOUIS — After the Cincinnati Reds’ playoff hopes were dashed by a 15-6 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday in Game 161 of the season, Joey Votto addressed his teammates.

“Because of you,” Votto said, according to rookie Spencer Steer, before pointing at each player in the clubhouse at Busch Stadium, “we can change this franchise right here. We can change what this logo means. We can really change what people think about Cincinnati baseball.”

Steer grabbed the red undershirt he was wearing as he described Votto’s speech, pulling on the white wishbone-C directly in the middle of the shirt.

“I thought that was pretty powerful,” Steer said. “I thought it was awesome that he spoke before us and said that. I’m honestly getting chills talking about it.

“Hearing that from a guy who has been here before — it’s a great fan base, it’s a great city, and they deserve a winning baseball team. He told us we can win championships because of this core. Hearing that from him was what we needed after tonight’s game. And to be able to leave here with our heads held high makes it a lot easier after hearing it from a guy like him.”

Votto could be playing in the last game of his career Sunday — or at least of his Reds career. The Reds have a one-year, $20 million contract option for the 40-year-old for the 2024 season and a $7 million buyout.

Votto, who received several standing ovations following his last home game of the season, has said he won’t make any decisions about his future until after the season.

That season ends Sunday, likely with Votto in the lineup against the Cardinals in Game 162, the first game of the season that doesn’t have playoff implications for the Reds.

If you had said on Opening Day, when Cincinnati lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Great American Ball Park, that the Reds would be in playoff contention until Sept. 30, it would have come as a shock to pretty much anyone who follows baseball.

In the past six months, a franchise that had lost 100 games the year before became one of the sport’s most exciting, entertaining teams, a mixture of speed and power. It was a period highlighted by debuts, rookie superstars and role players galore.

In all, the Reds have used 65 players, one short of the total from the year before, when they used a club-record number of players. The difference, though, was that the overwhelming majority of the players who wore a Reds uniform this season looked like they belonged and, more importantly, played like they belonged.

The Reds had 16 players make their major-league debuts this season, the most in the big leagues. Among them were the top prospect in the game, shortstop Elly De La Cruz; a first-round pick, Matt McLain; first baseman Christian Encarnacion-Strand; and third baseman Noelvi Marte. Encarnacion-Strand and Marte were acquired in blockbuster trades at the 2022 trade deadline. There were also pitchers like Brandon Williamson and Connor Phillips, who were the starting pitchers in the last two meaningful games of the season.

The Reds will finish with either 82 or 83 wins, depending on Sunday’s outcome. That final number, though, won’t be the defining attribute of this team, nor will its falling short of the playoffs.

Steer, the 25-year-old who came to Cincinnati along with Encarnacion-Strand from the Minnesota Twins in the deal for Tyler Mahle, was the Reds’ most steady and productive player, leading them with 23 home runs and 86 RBIs heading into the final game of the season.

But more than that, Steer embodied the team’s ethos, playing wherever he was needed, opening spots for other players to come in and get playing time. Entering the season, Steer had played all of one game in the outfield in his life, and that had been a year ago in his first couple of weeks with the organization. In 2023, he started 36 games in left field and two in right, playing 48 games in the outfield, including Saturday, when he started at first base and finished in right field.

“There was never any egos. There was never any dramas. There was never any ‘Poor me, I’m not playing today’ or ‘Poor me, I’m 0-for-20,’” Steer said. “It just seemed like everyone in this clubhouse was honestly pulling for each other and pulling on this side of the rope. I really think that’s why we’re in this spot.”

This spot, of course, was painful. The season would end regardless, but the Rally Reds never seemed to be out of a game, and they were never out of the season until 9:35 p.m. Central on Saturday when De La Cruz flied out to end the game.

In the latest must-win game, Phillips threw 12 pitches, none for a strike, before he was taken out of the game by manager David Bell. The day after the Reds bludgeoned the Cardinals 19-2, St. Louis scored four runs before recording an out. It followed its five-run first with a five-run second and another run in the third for an 11-0 lead. The Reds trimmed that lead to 11-5 in the fifth and had the bases loaded in the eighth trailing 11-6 but couldn’t capitalize. The Cardinals scored four more in the bottom of the inning before a trio of fly balls — one to each outfielder — in the top of the ninth ended the Reds’ playoff dreams.

Afterward, most of the players stayed in the dugout, reflecting on what had just happened.

Jonathan India, perhaps the soul of the team and its emotional leader, or at least role model, came out to talk to the assembled media. Wearing his full uniform, spikes and everything, India sat on a director’s chair outside the clubhouse, cameras on him, microphones and recorders in his face and tears in his eyes.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of emotion. It really kills me. I really don’t know what to say,” India said. “It’s just a special, special team. A special season. I don’t know. It’s very tough. It’s bringing me to tears just how much I love this team, how much I love this city. I’ve been here three years, and this is the team. I know for the future they’re going to be amazing. It just kills me.”

India answered one more question, and it was done. He went back to the clubhouse, where he sat in front of his locker, still in uniform, as most of his teammates finished showering and left for the hotel. He sat, looking straight ahead, oblivious to the activity around him.

Disappointment hung in a clubhouse that had seen it before, but even as Steer spoke, he spoke not just of the pain of the night, the pain of falling just short of a goal, but of what he saw around him. To his right was Encarnacion-Strand, his fellow former Twins prospect, who dazzled in spring training and hit 13 home runs in his 62 games in the big leagues. To his immediate left was Marte, who had four hits including his second home run in two days Saturday, extending his hitting streak to 14 games, the longest by a Reds rookie since 1946.

Steer couldn’t help but smile while talking about just what was in the clubhouse and what is likely coming back next season. When Votto, who debuted in 2007, spoke of the championship core of the Reds, he wasn’t including himself. He was looking around the room and seeing a collection of talent greater than that possessed by most of the teams he’s been a part of in this uniform.

“I think right now it’s OK to be bummed out,” Steer said. “We’ve grinded it out since February to ultimately get into the playoffs. We fell short today, but I think it’s totally OK to be bummed, right? But it’s also OK to leave with our heads high, knowing that we accomplished a lot this year to get to this point. For me, I’m going to reflect on the positives of the situation and reflect on what it took to get here and the incredible things we accomplished this year because there’s plenty to be proud of.”

(Photo of Ivan Herrera tagging out Noelvi Marte: Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images)

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