The story comes around most Thanksgivings and Christmases. The men on my mom’s side of the family gather round my uncle’s basement bar and talk Cincinnati sports. A few family legends are rehashed year after year.
The tale of Hideo Nomo’s unfortunate Game 3 start in the 1995 National League Division Series at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati is one of them.
Nomo, the would-be NL Rookie of the Year, took the ball with his Los Angeles Dodgers facing an elimination game against the Reds after L.A. dropped the first two games of best-of-five series at home.
In Game 3, Nomo didn’t make it out of the sixth inning, and his team eventually lost 10-1. (The Reds have lost seven straight home playoff games since Game 3 of the ‘95 NLDS).
The story goes Nomo got knocked around — he was charged with seven hits and five runs (all earned) — and was regaled with a taunting chant by the near-capacity crowd:
NOOO-MO! NOOO-MO! NOOO-MO!
Nomo was the first person I thought of when the paid customers at PNC Park in Pittsburgh began chanting Johnny Cueto’s last name Tuesday night the NL Wild Card Game.
So, beginning with the 6-2 Wild Card Game loss to the Pirates, let’s combine a look back at the 2013 Reds with a look ahead to the offseason, complete with my suggestions for improvement…
Liriano channels Al Leiter
Longtime Reds observers surely had memories of former Mets lefty Al Leiter running through their minds as Pittsburgh’s Francisco Liriano’s slider nosedived in and out of the strike zone Tuesday.
Back in 1999, the Reds lost four of their last five games and were forced into a one-game Wild Card play-in opposite visiting New York.
Leiter shut the Reds out over nine innings. He yielded just two hits and didn’t allow a base runner to reach second base until the ninth inning.
Cincinnati won 96 games and failed to advance to the playoffs.
Fourteen years later, another southpaw starter dominated the Reds in an elimination game — though this time Cincinnati technically still qualified for the postseason.
Left-handed batters hit just .130 against Liriano this season, and that group’s on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) against the veteran southpaw was .321 — the lowest such mark in at least 70 years, per the website Grantland.
Cincinnati’s three best hitters are all lefties — Shin-Soo Choo, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce — and they predictably struggled vs. Liriano, going 1-for-8 with four strikeouts.
Liriano wound up going seven innings, allowing an earned run while fanning five and allowing four hits. Fourteen of the 21 outs he recorded came via the ground ball, a predictable result of Reds batters chasing that slider.
Suggestion: Nothing. Given their reliance on left-handed hitters, the Reds went into the Wild Card Game with one hand tied behind their back.
Was it all a dream?
The Reds slept-walked through 2013. From Day 1, something was off about this bunch. Aside from acquiring Choo and resigning some middle relievers, Cincinnati mostly stood pat prior to the season and failed to upgrade its roster before the Trade Deadline.
The same strategy was invoked after the breakthrough 2010 campaign, and the result was a disappointing record of 79-83 in 2011.
Maybe the loss of Scott Rolen was understated. One of the game’s best third basemen in the last 20 years declined the Reds spring training invite last winter, but never formally retired.
During his three-plus seasons with the club, Rolen’s unassuming but effective leadership was credited with the development of many of the team’s young stars.
With Rolen gone, there was no doubt a void in guidance. None of the longest-tenured position players on the team — Votto, Bruce and Brandon Phillips — are leader types.
Rolen’s absence could not have had that large of an effect on the Reds fundamentals.
In the 2010 All-Star Game, Rolen went first to third on seventh-inning single, and Phillips was caught by TV audio saying, “That’s how we do in Cincinnati. We go first to third.”
The 2010 and 2012 NL Central teams were joys to watch. They had a flair for the dramatic, sure — Bruce’s opposite-field dinger to clinch the 2010 division title comes to mind — but seemed to take care of the little things.
The 2013 was a monochrome unit; never winning more than six in a row.
Watching the Reds this year was far from aesthetically pleasing. They committed far too many TOOTBLANs (Thrown out on the base paths like a nincompoop) for an experienced team. And they were shameful in clutch situations, evidenced by a .203 average with runners in scoring position and two outs.
The Reds are a collection of talented ball players, but on the surface, they seemed apathetic this summer. In a game full of quantifiables, something intangible was amiss.
Suggestion: Get back to the basics in the offseason. When looking at potential additions, factor in a player’s leadership qualities. Plead with Bruce, Phillips and Votto to move out of their comfort zones
Has Dusty Baker lost his touch?
General manager Walt Jocketty’s comments following the Wild Card Game suggest Dusty Baker will return for a seventh season as Reds manager.
And that’s a shame, because Baker is one of the best managers the organization has ever had.
The Reds have won 90 games three times, made the playoffs on a trio of occasions and claimed two NL Central titles in Baker’s tenure. Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson is the only other skipper to pilot a Reds team to the playoffs more than twice.
But Baker’s time in Cincinnati has run its course.
A manager’s influence on his team can run dry — just ask rookie Indians manager Tito Francona, who claimed two World Series championships and won at least 86 games in all nine of his seasons in Boston, only to be shown the door after a September 2011 collapse.
The players and coaches share responsibility for what happened to the Reds in 2013, but it’s time for a new voice and a new approach in the Queen City.
Baker’s tactics — especially his love for the bunt — have long been criticized by the sabermetric community and progressive baseball observers, but furor over many of his decisions this season reached a fever pitch on social media. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say the fan base has turned against Baker.
The long-time manager has long been an ardent supporter of his players, but with the listless and uninspired play of the guys he’s constantly propped up and endorsed publicly, human nature says Baker must’ve been at the very least agitated by his team at points in 2013.
Yes, losing Ryan Ludwick on Opening Day, Johnny Cueto being limited to 11 starts and the injuries to big money middle relievers Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall must be factored in.
But, a team with the Reds’ talent cannot be afraid of change, not with its core firmly entrenched in its prime and its championship window shrinking by the year.
Suggestion: Eat the one year and $3.5 million remaining on Baker’s deal and shop for a new skipper.