By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — It has been a long, long, long time since the Cincinnati Reds played a meaningful series, an elephant’s age since they gave their fans even a sniff of hope.
That time has arrived and it is time for the Reds to give a strong sermon or get off the pulpit.
The division-leading Chicago Cubs arrive in Great American Ball Park Thursday night for a season-defining four-game series.
The Cubs most likely are not paying much attention to the Reds, who are in fourth place in the National League Central. Their focus probably is on the second place St. Louis Cardinals, 2 1/2 games behind them, and the third place Milwaukee Brewers, three games behind them.
The Reds are seven back and the Cubs have to figure they are in no danger from a team that has finished last four straight years.
It would be in their best interests to pay close attention because the Reds are a hard-slugging, pitch-rich and confident group right now.
And they know they can stand their ground with the Cubs after winning seven of the first 12 games this season.
The Cubs are going to get a hefty dose of some solid pitching, a rotation that is comparable to what the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers can run out on a daily basis.
Lined up to face the Cubs are Alex Wood, Trevor Bauer, Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo. Much, of course, depends upon how deep those guys can go into games because the Reds bullpen is suddenly suspect.
The Reds have won four of their last five series and split four games at Atlanta against the Braves, leaders of the National League East. The Reds are 10-and-5 in those games.
Manager David Bell returns from his six-game suspension, during which the Reds were 4-and-2 under acting manager Freddie Benavides, a former Dayton Dragons manager.
But don’t believe that Bell didn’t have anything to do with running the team. He still made out lineup cards and presided over pre-game meetings to discuss game strategy.
His suspension meant only that he couldn’t be in the dugout or clubhouse during games.
He was there pre-game and post-game and Benavides followed pre-game planning as closely as possible.
Bell, a low-profile guy except when he is on the field covering his players’ backs, is low key about what is unfolding in front of his eyes.
“Making the playoffs won’t take a miracle and isn’t something we are not capable of,” he said. “We’ve seen teams come from behind in all different ways. And we don’t want to wait until September. We want to make up ground every single day.”
And now is the time to make up more ground in a short period than Napoleon Bonaparte conquering the European continent.
If the Reds sweep the four games, they are three back. If they win three, they are five back. If they split, they remain seven back. If they win one they are nine back. If they are swept, they are 11 back.
That is an eight-game swing, one way or the other. It will determine this team’s direction, positively or negatively.
And they are only 4 1/2 behind snatching the second wild card spot, although they have five teams to climb over.
Winning the division is the easier route and more meaningful. Wild card teams play one game against each other, lose and out. Division winners advance directly to the National League Division Series, where Cincinnati’s solid rotation is meaningful over a five-game series (NLDS) or a seven-game series (NLCS, World Series).
“That’s our goal,” said Bell. “Even though we’re not there yet, not where we want to be, we have a shot at it. We have to continue to play good. We have the confidence that we are good enough.”