Cincinnati Reds right fielder Jay Bruce tried to clinch the National League Central Division title Friday night with a homer, but struck out, postponing the Reds' inevitable title celebration. Credit: Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE

Cincinnati Reds Inches From Clinching


CINCINNATI–Two years ago, Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce came to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning of a September game and smashed a game-winning home run that propelled his team to the National League Central Division title. Friday night, 35,397 fans at the Great American Ball Park were itching f0r the instant replay.

The Reds were tied, 1-1, with the Los Angeles Dodgers and their magic number was one after the St. Louis Cardinals lost Friday afternoon. The video of Bruce’s previous triumphant homer played on the scoreboard. Fans chanted “Bruuuce!” Then, on the first pitch from LA hurler Ronald Belisario, Bruce cracked a shot down the left-field line. Foul. He chipped another foul, took a ball and sent another ball soaring down the left-field line foul. Ball two. A slice to left foul. Fans were standing. Swing and a miss, strike three. It was too good to be true to think Bruce could hit a second walk-off home run to clinch a crown.

The Dodgers won the game, 3-1, in 1o innings, but all that did was delay the Reds party. The division trophy has already taken up residence in the clubhouse with an empty bottle of champagne resting in its core. With an 11-game lead over second-place St. Louis, you don’t have to be much of a seer to predict that the Reds are going to win the title and be able to justifiably hoist the large gold prize and sip from a full bottle of bubbly.

“Barring any crazy, crazy, crazy events, we’re gonna get it done,” Bruce said.

Yes, all we’re dealing with here is mathematical certainty, versus obvious theory. The 91-game-winning Reds might get that one victory today against the Dodgers, although the primary mission of reaching the playoffs had already been accomplished when they grabbed a minimum of a wild-card spot a couple of days ago. The Reds view what can be done in the 2012 season with the same pragmatism as manager Dusty Baker does, even if Baker has been ill lately and out of the dugout.

The first goal was to put together the type of regular season that resulted in a National League playoff spot. Check. The next step was winning the division. Check. Then comes moving on through the division series, the National League Championship Series and the World Series. Stay tuned. Right now, with the Reds having one of the top records in baseball, anything is possible.

“One step at a time,” said utility man Miguel Cairo. “That was the first step. We’ve got to win 11 games (in the playoffs).”

When the Reds qualified for the playoffs in 2010 the franchise hadn’t been a post-season participant in years, so there was a lot of buzz. Expectations for this team have been high since spring training, so it will take greater accomplishments for this season to be deemed a major success. Just being in the playoffs two out of three years is OK, but these players want more now.

Still, Todd Frazier, a rookie newcomer to the team, was not around in 2010, so he may have been the happiest player in the locker room when the playoff berth was clinched against the Cubs the other day. Someone asked Frazier how he felt knowing that the Reds would play on into October.

“A little giddy,” he said. “Me? I’m crazy excited. That’s me.”

Clinching the division crown, today or soon, will ratchet up the excitement notch a bit for everyone else in Cincinnati, too.

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