CINCINNATI — The Reds are headed to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, completing the long-awaited trip with Jay Bruce's one dramatic swing.
Bruce homered on the first pitch from Tim Byrdak in the bottom of the ninth Tuesday night for a 3-2 victory over the Houston Astros that secured the NL Central title.
It was a fitting finish to the unexpected championship drive. Cincinnati has won 22 games in its last at-bat, second-most in the majors.
Left-hander Aroldis Chapman (2-2) pitched a perfect ninth, topping out at 101 mph while showing playoff opponents the nasty stuff they can expect.
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Bruce latched onto the first delivery from Byrdak (2-2) and lined it over the wall in center, sending teammates sprinting to home plate to pummel him after he touched home with the title-winning run while fireworks went off overhead.
With the title, Dusty Baker joined Bill McKechnie as the only managers to lead three different NL teams to the playoffs. Baker also has made it with the Giants and Cubs.
The Reds sold 30,151 tickets for the clinching game — above-average for a cool September weeknight — and took the field almost tasting it. Second baseman Brandon Phillips said he doesn't drink and has never taken so much as a sip of champagne.
"Everybody is looking forward to seeing me do it," Phillips said. "I don't know how it's going to taste. I don't know what's going to happen."
Most Reds were novices at the sip-and-spray tradition. Four female fans in the upper deck wore shirts that, side-by-side, urged the home team to "Show Us The Bubbly."
They showed some defense when Drew Stubbs stretched above the wall in center to steal a two-run homer away from Carlos Lee in the third inning, drawing a standing ovation.
The crowd was on its feet again in the sixth, when the Reds loaded the bases with none out. Phillips tied it at 2 with an infield single to the hole at shortstop, but Bruce grounded into an inning-ending double play.
Bruce made up for it on his next swing.
The Reds hadn't reached the post-season since 1995, when Davey Johnson took them to the NL championships series, then lost his job because owner Marge Schott didn't like him.
After that, Cincinnati lost its way.
The Reds went through three owners, five general managers and seven managers without once making it back to the post-season. They came close in 1999 under Jack McKeon, losing a playoff for the wild card to the Mets. Ken Griffey Jr. arrived the following year, raising expectations for a long run of division titles.
Instead, the bottom fell out.
But this year was different. The Reds got into the race in mid-May and didn't crack under pressure. Instead, the defending champion Cardinals fell apart. The two teams were separated by no more than three games from mid-May to mid-August, matching each other win-for-win.
An emerging core of young players pulled it off.
First baseman Joey Votto grew into an MVP candidate this season, ranking in the top three in batting, homers and RBI. The Reds' youth-laden lineup became the NL's most prolific, leading in batting average, runs and homers. The defense became one of the NL's best.
And Chapman put some sizzle in the stretch drive when he was called up in August and hit 105 on radar guns.
It was an emotional night for Baker, who won his fourth division championship as a manager. He also took the 1997 Giants, 2000 Giants and 2003 Cubs to the playoffs.
Baker's father, Johnnie, died last November after a long illness.
"It's really special for me this year because I think about my dad a lot," he said. "Last year was very difficult. Every midnight call I got I thought was about my dad. He wasn't supposed to live past the All-Star break, then he wasn't supposed to live until August, then he wasn't supposed to live until September. He lasted until I got home.
"So I just knew when the season started that my dad was with me big-time."