Appearing to be stronger, better built and possessing no shortage of intangibles and resiliency, these 2012 Reds seemed poised to go further than the 2010 version that was unceremoniously swept in the first round of the playoffs.
Once the Reds took a 2-0 lead in the National League Division Series over the Giants at San Francisco, they were definitely going places in the postseason, right?
Wrong. Cincinnati, a 97-win NL Central Division champion, once again found heartbreak in early October. It lost three straight at home for the first time all season, which of course meant it was also the last time.
"I'm proud of them -- and proud they fought to the end, which they did," Reds manager Dusty Baker said.
As successful as the Reds were much of the season, they were fighting their way through adversity from the early days of Spring Training. Cincinnati survived season-ending injuries to closer Ryan Madson and setup man Nick Masset. It survived, and thrived, when Joey Votto was lost for six weeks starting in mid-July because he needed left knee surgery. Even Baker endured something far more concerning than a playoff loss, after he suffered a minor stroke in mid-September and missed 11 games.
Votto's knee injury, which sidelined him for 48 games, had players from Brandon Phillips to Jay Bruce to Todd Frazier and Ryan Ludwick stepping up and filling the offensive void.
Along the way, the Reds were battle tested by lots of tense and tight games -- and very few blowout wins to brag about. They were among league leaders with 44 come-from-behind victories, including one vs. Arizona on July 19 in which they battled back from a 6-0 deficit. The club had a 23-19 record in games decided in the last at-bat, and a 31-21 record in one-run games. There were also 11 walk-off wins and, yes, nine tough walk-off losses.
Somehow, the Reds often seemed to find a way to win.
They almost did it again, when Johnny Cueto went down after only eight pitches in Game 1 of the NLDS at San Francisco.
Almost. After winning the first two games with great pitching by Mat Latos and Bronson Arroyo, and getting a great Game 3 from Homer Bailey, the Reds still lost the series. They became the first team to blow a 2-0 NLDS lead since the expansion of the playoffs in 1995.
"I'm still happy about the way the year went," Phillips said. "I'm very happy about us winning the division. I'm very happy that we at least won one game. Last time, we got swept [by the Phillies]. We made an improvement.
"Of course, we should have made it to the next round but ... it didn't go that way. Keep your head up. I hope the fans get the hatred out of their heart. I know they're mad. Who wouldn't be mad? It's a disappointing time for us. All you can do is smile and look forward to next year."
While the Reds came up short in the most painful of ways, there was no shortage of successful moments. What follows is a look at the highs and lows from the 2012 season:
Record: 97-65, 1st place in NL Central
Defining moment: At one point from July 6-Aug. 4, the Reds went 22-3 and essentially decided the division. Overall during Votto's absence, they were 32-16. It was during that time a one-game lead over the Cardinals on July 16 was stretched to eight games upon Votto's return.
What went right: The 2012 season brought many successes, almost too many to count. Cueto became a true ace, as he enjoyed a 19-win season and likely will receive NL Cy Young Award consideration. ... The rotation had four pitchers work at least 200 innings -- Cueto, Latos, Arroyo and Bailey. Five starters, including Mike Leake, made 30 starts. No one in the rotation missed a start, and a sixth starter was only needed because of a doubleheader. ... The bullpen led the Majors in ERA at 2.65 and overcame several injuries. Once installed as closer on May 20, Aroldis Chapman dominated most of the time and amassed 38 saves, including a club record 27 in a row. It might get him some Cy Young votes, too. ... Bruce kept increasing his home run and RBI totals each season, as he hit 34 homers with 99 RBIs ... Phillips proved versatile in the lineup, but also maintained his Gold Glove-level form at second base. ... New signee Ludwick had a bounce-back year, hitting 26 homers with 80 RBIs. ... Catcher Ryan Hanigan emerged as one of baseball's best defensively, and was a big reason for the rotation's consistency.
What went wrong: The leadoff spot was the most unsettled part of the Reds' lineup this season, and the least productive. Leadoff hitters -- mainly Drew Stubbs, Zack Cozart and Phillips -- combined to bat .208 with a .254 on-base percentage. ... Stubbs, who struggled for much of 2011, had another rough year at the plate, and batted only .213 for the season. In 47 games since Aug. 6, Stubbs batted .160 with no homers. ... The team's hitting with runners in scoring position was a weakness much of the year, and it was exposed during the three NLDS losses. The Reds were 3-for-24 (.125) with RISP in Games 3, 4 and 5 and stranded 28 men on base. ... Devin Mesoraco, who was the top prospect entering the season, never got going as a hitter while batting .212 in 54 games as a backup catcher. Mesoraco barely played in September after losing his role to Dioner Navarro, and was left off of the postseason roster.
Big surprise: Rookie Todd Frazier was the final cut out of Spring Training, after being brought north from camp in April. But injuries to Scott Rolen and Votto gave Frazier the chance to step up, and he proved invaluable to the club. He batted .276 with 19 homers and, until a drop off the final few weeks of the season, was a top contender for NL Rookie of the Year.