CINCINNATI — Cincinnatians remember 2005, the NFL playoffs. That was the year the Bengals shed their Bungles image to win a division title and play host to a playoff game. First offensive snap, ecstasy became agony as quarterback Carson Palmer went down with a knee injury.
That's what the Giants-Reds National League Division Series felt like when the Reds' Johnny Cueto departed with some sort of mysterious injury after his eighth pitch in Game 1 in San Francisco. A regular season of good fortune followed by a post-season of bad luck.
The Bengals rallied in 2005 for a halftime lead over the Steelers, only to suffer a second-half reality check. The Reds won the series' first two games in San Francisco only to come home and suffer a reality check.
There was the makeshift pitching rotation. There was the MVP first baseman whose physical limitations kept him from hitting the ball out of even a small park. There was the inability to come through in the clutch.
"It was our inability to get the big hit these three games at home," said Ryan Ludwick. "This team had lived and died with the big hit all year."
This time, it died. The Reds scored but one run in a 10-inning loss to the Giants on Tuesday. They stranded eight through the first four innings of a Wednesday loss. Thursday, they went 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position and left 11 men on base.
Meanwhile, Buster Posey cranked a fifth-inning grand slam and the Giants held on 6-4 to become the first team to come back from a 2-0 deficit to win an NLDS.
"Being up 2-0, there's no reason for us to lose this series," Reds first baseman Joey Votto said in a corner of the losing clubhouse. "But it happened. And 50 percent of that has to go to San Francisco and how well they played."
"They kept us away from the big hit," said Ludwick.
That's not how they will look at it in Cincinnati, of course, where a great regular season — 97 wins, most since 1976 — gave way to a post-season collapse.
They'll blame Manager Dusty Baker, who rolled the dice with no outs in the sixth inning, sending runners Jay Bruce and Scott Rolen on a 3-2 pitch to Ryan Hanigan, who had fanned just 37 times in the regular season. Hanigan took a called third strike. Bruce was thrown out at third. Rally killed.
"We were just trying to make something happen," Bruce said. "If he hits it through the hole we've got (a run in) and runners at first and third with no outs."
They'll question the decision to activate and start Mike Leake on Wednesday, especially after the right-hander was roughed up in an 8-3 loss.
They'll lament the knee injury to Votto that robbed the All-Star of his power. Votto did not hit a single homer after returning from mid-season knee surgery.
"I did the very best I could," Votto said. "I could try to go out and try and be something I was not. Or I could shrink it down and try to help the team the best I could. That was really the only choice I could make."
But Cincinnatians should have seen the handwriting on the wall Saturday night in San Francisco when Cueto felt what turned out to be a strained oblique muscle. That set the tone for the five-game series, even if the Reds did win the first two.
"I thought this was a team that was capable of winning it all," Ludwick said. "We battled through a lot of adversity. We lost Ryan Madson in spring training. We lost Joey Votto during the season. Dusty Baker had a health issue (irregular heartbeat and mini-stroke). And then we lose Johnny Cueto. But we battled through it. I thought it was written in the books we were going to go on."
Instead, the book on this season is closed.
"When you look at it, with all the things that happened to us," said Votto, "I don't want to say we were lucky, but we were fortunate. I felt like we owed somebody some change, you know what I mean?"
John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com