And with a familiar swing getting them there.
Jay Bruce was Cincinnati’s Mr. Clinch again, hitting the homer that started the Reds toward a 6-0 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday.
The only thing missing was the manager.
Dusty Baker spent another day in a Chicago hospital getting treated for an irregular heartbeat. Jocketty texted congratulations to the 63-year-old Baker on his fifth division title as a manager, including two during the last three years with Cincinnati.
“He is here everywhere,” owner Bob Castellini said, standing in the middle of a soaked clubhouse that had beer and champagne dripping from the ceiling. “He is here in spirit, and everybody knows he’s here. We hope to see him tomorrow.”
The players toasted Baker before drenching each other.
“It’s a shame he’s not here,” third baseman Scott Rolen said. “He digs this stuff. He’s missed, there’s no doubt about that.”
The 2010 party started with a dramatic Bruce homer, a first-pitch leadoff shot in the ninth against Houston’s Tim Byrdak. On Saturday, he led off the fourth inning with a first-pitch homer off rookie Stephen Fife (0-2), putting Cincinnati ahead to stay with his team-leading 34th of the season.
“It’s not the same as two years ago, but I’ll take it,” Bruce said. “We’ve been taking care of business for quite a while, so we knew this was coming. Today is a nutshell of what we’ve been doing all season.”
Mat Latos (13-4) allowed six hits and didn’t walk a batter in eight innings. Aroldis Chapman finished it off by getting Hanley Ramirez to hit into a double play.
The celebration was on, though more subdued than two years ago.
“A couple of years ago, we were a surprise,” said Joey Votto. “It kind of crept up on us. We didn’t expect it. This year, we felt we had something to prove.”
As the Reds closed in on the final outs, second baseman Brandon Phillips pretended he was shaking a bottle of champagne and spraying it everywhere while sitting on the bench in the dugout. Phillips says the only other time he’s had champagne was during the 2010 clubhouse celebration.
After the final out, players formed a huddle to the side of the mound, with pitcher Johnny Cueto spraying them with a bottle of water. An attendant rolled out a cart of gray championship shirts and hats.
Cincinnati became the first team in the majors to clinch a division title this season, leaving it with one goal left. The Reds are vying with Washington for the NL’s top seed in the playoffs, both with 92 wins that lead the majors.
It’s unclear when Baker will be back. The three-time manager of the year also won division titles with the Giants and Cubs. Baker reached the World Series once as a manager, losing a Game 7 against the Angels in 2002, his final season in San Francisco.
The Reds had their first opportunity to take the title on Friday night, but lost 3-1 to the Dodgers in 10 innings. Bruce had a chance to win it with another game-ending homer, but struck out leading off the ninth.
A day later, Bruce connected, Phillips added a solo homer, and rookie Todd Frazier singled home a run for more than enough. The Reds added three runs in the eighth, aided by reliever Jamey Wright’s throwing error.
The Dodgers lost for the 11th time in 16 games, a swoon that has dropped them out of a wild-card spot. They trail St. Louis by three games and Milwaukee by a half-game for the final playoff berth.
Cincinnati’s 92nd win is another high point under Baker, who took over in 2008 when the club was rebuilding with young stars Bruce, Votto and Cueto. The Reds improved each of the first two seasons, then became champions ahead of schedule by winning 91 games in 2010 to secure their first postseason appearance in 15 years.
Their inexperience showed in the playoffs, where the Reds got no-hit by Roy Halladay and swept by the Phillies in three games.
Things unraveled last year, when the front office decided to bring the team back virtually intact rather than upgrading its problem areas. Three of the five starting pitchers got hurt or sick during spring training, and several veterans had disappointing seasons, resulting in a third-place finish.
Cincinnati learned from its mistakes. The Reds traded two former first-round picks and starter Edinson Volquez to San Diego for Latos. Then they gave Votto an extra 10 years and $225 million on his contract.
The investments paid off in the first year.
“It’s special because we’ve been there, we’ve done that,” Castellini said. “We’ve also known how to get blown out in three (playoff) games. We don’t feel we’re going to let that happen again. I know we all feel that way. We’re pretty confident. We’ll see what happens.”
Baker did some of his best managing during the season. The back end of the bullpen <0x2014> closer Ryan Madson, setup relievers Nick Masset and Bill Bray <0x2014> got wiped out by injuries during spring training. Baker eased Chapman into the unfamiliar closer’s role, and he set a club record with 27 consecutive saves.
The gloomiest moment became a turning point.
Votto was the only consistent hitter going into July. He tore cartilage in his right knee and needed two operations. Baker was forced to juggle his lineup and batting order, trying to figure a way to make up for Votto’s productivity and stay in the race for the next six weeks.
It worked beautifully. The Reds went 32-16 without Votto, pulling into a commanding lead in the NL Central. They were closing in on clinching the division when they went to Chicago this week, then had another setback. Baker felt bad on Wednesday and was taken to a Chicago hospital for treatment of his irregular heartbeat.
If Phillips gets his way, Baker won’t miss out on the celebration entirely.
“I was looking forward to splashing some stuff in his face,” Phillips said. “I saved a bottle to splash on him when he gets back.”