Young Reds in pursuit of a pennant stretch to remember

Joey Votto stood in front of his locker, looked around the Cincinnati Reds clubhouse, and felt as if he were a proud father watching his kids grow into men.

Votto, 39, is surrounded by 11 rookies on this day’s roster, and 21 rookies who have suited up for the Reds this season.

These are the kids who got the Reds into the playoff picture, reeling off 12 consecutive victories at one juncture.

They’re also the kids who have hit the proverbial wall, going 10-17 in August, trying to see if they can recover and make this a pennant stretch to remember.

This is the Reds’ last stand, beginning Friday with a doubleheader against the Chicago Cubs in the first of a 10-game stretch at Great American Ballpark, that includes the Seattle Mariners and St. Louis Cardinals.

If the Reds (69-66) are still standing when the homestand ends, they’ve got a real shot to reach the postseason for the first time in a full season since 2013. They finish the year playing 17 of their final 20 games against teams with losing records, with only the Minnesota Twins (69-65) having a winning record.  They are just one game back in the NL wild-card race and six behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central, vying to become the first team in history to win a division after losing 100 games the previous season.

If their struggles continue, losing six of their last eight games on their road trip that included an eight-hour stint on the tarmac at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix because of mechanicals problems, the refrain will be, “Wait ‘til Next Year!’

Once again.

But, this time, it will have a different meaning.

The Reds, with their dizzying array of young talent, could be the favorite to win the NL Central in 2024.

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If they pick up a veteran starter, grab a few bullpen reinforcements, they could be a dangerous force, going where no Reds’ team has gone since 1990, a World Series berth.

Yes, they are that talented.

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had,’’ Votto tells USA TODAY Sports. “I love playing with these guys. … I feel like it’s a dance. We’re going to give you a style of play that you’re entertained by, and you’re going to energize us. I feel like most fanbases don’t return so quickly, and they responded as well as you can possibly ask for.’’

Reds third baseman Noelvi Marte, shortstop Elly De La Cruz, first baseman Joey Votto and second baseman Matt McLain celebrate a victory.

Reds third baseman Noelvi Marte, shortstop Elly De La Cruz, first baseman Joey Votto and second baseman Matt McLain celebrate a victory.

The Reds’ attendance is up by 423,942 this season, the second-biggest increase in the National League behind the Philadelphia Phillies. They’ve got the fans believing again, and, well, the Reds will tell you that their confidence never waned.

“To their credit, they are a team that really doesn’t believe in external projections,’’ Votto said. “They don’t pay attention to expectations. They don’t care about the name on the back of their jerseys or the national reputation of the opposing team.

“They’re just kind of like, ‘We’re good. We’re going to be great together.’ It’s been energizing to watch.’’

Votto is talking about inflielder Elly De La Cruz. Shortstop Matt McClain. Second baseman Spencer Steer. First baseman Christian Encarnacion-Strand. Starters Andrew Abbott, Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo and Graham Ashcraft. And those are just a few of the kids.

“There are five guys I can name that are making the minimum [salary] right now,’’ Votto says, “that I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re All-Stars next year, starting All-Stars. They’re all under team control for a long time, and most important happy to be here. They’re proud of representing this team, this city, and I think that’s an important factor.’’

The Reds’ emergence reminds Votto and the front office of the Cubs. They burst onto the scene in 2015, reaching the NLCS, and one year later were on floats in downtown Chicago, celebrating their first World Series title in 108 years.

So, as the Reds will tell you: Why not us?

“We know the window should be open for a long time,’’ Reds manager David Bell says, “but we wanted to see if we can make it happen quicker than anyone expects. We know what the expectations were, but we really believed we could make it happen this year.

“So, we made it a goal of our team, let’s see how fast we can make this a possibility. We had that mindset from the very beginning.’’

The Reds, after losing 100 games a year ago, looked like they might be in for a repeat. They opened the season, losing 15 of first 22 games. They recovered to sweep the Texas Rangers at home, but were still eight games out of .500 entering May. Votto decided to address the team. He implored the urgency to just reach .500, and once there, the calvary will be coming.

The Reds started bringing up the rookies, one by one, and they started winning one by one beginning June 10. They became the talk of baseball, winning 12 consecutive games, wondering if they’d never lose again.

“That was just pure fun,’’ Reds center fielder TJ Friedl said. “Throughout that time, we were down a lot in a lot of those games, but there was no sense of panic by anyone. We knew we’d win. We told ourselves, ‘This isn’t a rebuild. We’re trying to get to the playoffs right now.’’’

They since have been streaky, with the young kids showing their talent some nights, and their age others. They have produced two five-game winning streaks since their 12-game run, but also have two six-game losing streaks, struggling to play .500 since late June.

Now, here they are, believing they have come too far to stop now.

“I know a lot of people think that we’re a year early,’’ Reds infielder Jonathan India, 26, says, “but to me, we’re right on time. The time is now. I knew a lot of these young kids would succeed after seeing their work ethic. They’re weren’t just talented players, they worked hard at what they have. I knew these kids would be prepared at anything thrown at them.

“I’m telling you, from the beginning, I knew it was special. This game be selfish, guys playing for themselves, the numbers, the money, but these guys definitely are the opposite. They have the will to win.”

Votto, who began playing for the Reds when most of his teammates were still in elementary school, would love to see it though. His 10-year, $225 million contract expires after this season. The Reds have the choice of picking up his $20 million option or paying him a $7 million buyout.

He has endured the anguish of the rebuild, suffered through the six consecutive losing seasons, the frustration of being out of the race by June, and would hate to be a bystander now.

Yet, he realizes it’s also a business. He is on the injured list now with an inflamed shoulder, having played just 51 games this season after missing 104 games the previous two seasons.

“I want to keep playing, and I’d love to be on one team my whole career,’’ Votto says, “but you only have so much control. I’ve been with this team my entire career, and if this is my last stretch here − I don’t know whether it will be one way or the other − but this has been golden.

“I’ll cheer my teammates for the rest of their careers.’’

The Reds have not tipped their hand which direction they’ll go. Maybe they’ll negotiate a new deal. Maybe they’ll say thanks for the memories.

“We’ll wait until the end of the season and see how it plays out,’’ says Reds GM Nick Krall, the mastermind of this quick and powerful rebuild. “But he’s been great with your young players. He jelled with the guys in spring training, started the year at Triple-A where he got to learn those guys, and has been just great for these kids.’’

They won’t be kids forever. They’re getting experience now. They’ll soon become veterans. And one day, they may look back and remember how 2023 catapulted them into greatness.

“Its incredible to think about the future,’’ Friedl said. “Every year we’re going to be in the playoff hunt. We’ve been in these intense games. We been in these tense moments. It’s not going to be foreign to any of these young guys.

“We believe we can win this year and make the playoffs, but the future, oh, just wait.’’

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Young Reds team in pursuit of playoffs ahead of schedule

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