PITTSBURGH – When Tucker Barnhart was asked what kept him confident in the Cincinnati Reds’ playoff chances after they lost for the 11th time in their last 15 games, he pointed toward the experience in the clubhouse.
“It's looking to my left and seeing Joey (Votto),” Barnhart said following the Reds’ 6-5 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday. “Looking to my right and being next to (Mike Moustakas). I mean, those guys have been there and done that. I've been there and done that, gotten out of funks. In my opinion, it's about just getting back to playing free, playing fun, going out there and just trusting that we're going to get the job done.”
Whenever a team struggles in a playoff race, the narrative usually turns to players pressing or trying to find a greater sense of urgency. Things typically look worse when an offense fails to score runs consistently.
The Reds haven’t won back-to-back games since Aug. 26-27 and they haven’t won a series since sweeping the Miami Marlins in four games at home from Aug. 19-22. They know they’ve struggled, and players have shown some frustration on the field.
Manager David Bell addressed players after Tuesday’s loss in Pittsburgh with a message that things will turn quickly for them.
“I have no doubt and it’s because I know our players, I know our team,” Bell said. “Not to say it’s easy. We have to turn this around. We know that. I’m completely confident and feel it turning. It’s going to happen. That’s where my focus is.”
Bell doesn’t address the team after every game. Sometimes, it’ll be visiting with individual players after games. Other times, it’ll be him speaking to everybody in the room.
Moustakas, who won a World Series title with the Kansas City Royals in 2015, says he’s not much of a team meeting guy – “We’re all professionals in here. We know what we need to do,” he said. But Moustakas does appreciate Bell’s message.
“It helps a lot,” Moustakas said. “Knowing that your manager is there with you and has got your back, and is cheering for you, it means a lot as a player. It gives you confidence every time you step in the box or step onto the mound knowing that your manager is there with you.”
Since Aug. 14, a full calendar month, the Reds have the third-lowest on-base percentage (.296) in the National League and the fourth-lowest batting average (.228). Two other teams playing at the same offensive level or worse are the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Padres, who have been freefalling in the wild-card race, are hitting below .200 for the past month. The Dodgers, chasing the San Francisco Giants in their division, have struggled offensively, but they have the starting pitching to make up for it.
“This thing is going to play out one way or another,” said Wade Miley, who allowed six runs in 4 1/3 innings in Tuesday’s loss. “You start trying to force it, in my opinion, it turns worse. It maybe looks like we’re doing that a little bit right now. I know I did that (Tuesday). I went into the game thinking I have to throw up a zero and put the team on my back, and it just doesn’t work. It does not work. We can’t perform at our highest level when we add pressure to ourselves.”
In the past three weeks, the Reds have dropped from a season-high 12 games over .500 after sweeping the Marlins to five games over .500. If they had remained at their previous pace, they would’ve held a commanding lead in the wild-card standings.
They’re fortunate they didn’t drop further in the wild-card race, sitting a half-game behind the St. Louis Cardinals after Tuesday’s games.
“It’s just one of those things that throughout a season, these stretches happen,” Barnhart said. “It's just magnified based on the situation or the scenario that we're in right now. It's going to change. And hopefully that starts tomorrow.
“Looking to your left and your right in the clubhouse and seeing those guys and knowing what we've been through this season, I think it starts there and I think it starts probably even further when you look at David and our coaching staff. We've hit slides before this year, and we've bounced back. This is no different.”
What gives the Reds confidence things will turn in their final 17 games of the season?
“Knowing how good we are,” Moustakas said. “The last 140 games or so, we’ve put ourselves in a position to have success. As a team, we all believe in each other. We believe that we know we can get the job done.”