ATLANTA -- As we started October in mid-August on Monday, the Cincinnati Reds and their $33 million payroll sit a game-and-a-half out of a playoff berth, staring down the higher-priced Braves, Mets and Astros.
If baseball is about getting what you pay for, these Reds should be going down in a whimper anytime now. There are four teams competing for three National League playoff spots during the next seven weeks, and only the Reds live in baseball's low-rent district.
They've got a roster with more guys closer to the league minimum ($200,000) than they have earning $1 million or more. There are 16 teams in the National League, and 11 pay more for its players than Cincinnati.
They are a direct affront to the theory that championships can be bought, that you need to write blank checks before you can stand on a podium, accepting a trophy from the commissioner.
Think of the Dodgers and Orioles, two teams spending twice the Reds' payroll and producing half the results.
And think about the infield Cincy started Monday night at Turner Field. First baseman Sean Casey ($220,000 a year), second baseman Pokey Reese ($270,000) and third baseman Aaron Boone ($210,000) combined to make less than millionaire Keith Lockhart and much less than $1.5 million Otis Nixon, the highest-paid pinch-runner in baseball history.
Reds relievers Danny Graves ($260,000) and rookie sensation Scott Williamson (league minimum $200,000) have combined to form the league's stingiest combo, helping their bullpen rank first in wins and earned-run average.
For the price of one Mike Remlinger, you could purchase six Williamsons.
"This game is not played with bank accounts and bottom lines," said Scott Sullivan, the third member of the Reds' pen.
"I think we're showing that talent and playing together is more important than blowing a wad of money on guys who won't play hard."
When the Braves last entertained these Reds, they essentially crushed this team's spirit, one baseball superpower intimidating a Third World nation. Cincy dropped three straight, scoring four runs and hitting .109 as a team.
Afterward, the highest-paid Red, Greg Vaughn, commanded a players-only meeting to say how embarrassed they should be with themselves. After that sweep, the Reds dropped to 9-14, last place in the Central. They easily could have cowered into Marlins and Expos poverty.
"That was the turning point of our season," former Braves pitcher Denny Neagle said. "Greg said that we needed to start looking in the mirror and start believing in ourselves. This team that will play the Braves six times in the next week is going to be a completely different ballclub than the first time they saw us."
Since that team meeting, the Reds have played .646 baseball, earning a 33-11 record in their last 44 road games. All the gold in Fort Knox cannot buy confidence, destiny or whatever kind of karma these Reds seem to be playing with now.
"We all feel that we've got a special thing going," Casey said.
Yet on paper, the Reds are the easy choice to dismiss in this four-for-three race. The Braves have the pedigree but seem to be cracking as the season progresses. The Mets have an unmatched defense with an offense to boot yet have questionable starting pitching. The Astros may have the race's best starters but no other bats to complement the Killer B's.
What do the Reds have? Not experience. Not the big-money stars. Not the dominant arms. So how are they still here?
Maybe it's something that money can't buy.