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Cincy's banner ignites long-awaited celebration

Cincy's banner ignites long-awaited celebration

CINCINNATI -- After a decade and a half of waiting -- and waiting -- the Reds clinched in big-time, big-moment style.

Jay Bruce's first-pitch walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth brought a rush of a celebration on to the field that Cincinnati hasn't enjoyed in years. There were fireworks blasting in the sky outside and champagne corks flying inside the clubhouse. It was one large party, and 30,151 fans were in attendance to take it all in.

Finally, the Reds are National League Central champions, as their magic number went from one to zero with a 3-2 win over the Astros on Tuesday night.

"2010 playoffs, Cincinnati Reds. It doesn't get any better than that," said Reds manager Dusty Baker. "It's a wonderful thing, isn't it?"

What seemed like forever without a playoff berth was actually 15 very long years since the Reds last reached the playoffs in 1995 as the first NL Central champs, and they reached the League Championship Series. In a city spoiled by 12 previous postseason appearances, including six in the 1970s alone with the Big Red Machine, it was torture.

"I'm sure it means a whole lot to the fans here," said pitcher Bronson Arroyo, who's been in Cincinnati since 2006. "This is my fifth year, and these guys have been waiting a long time. I was looking up at the banners today inside the stadium -- '75, '76 and '90. I know there were a couple years in between that they made the playoffs, but there hasn't been a whole lot the last 20-some years. So for us to be at this point after 15 years of not making the playoffs is definitely a nice feeling."

The Reds came into the 2010 season with expectations of simply taking a step forward. It was a club with no winning seasons since 2000 -- their longest such stretch since 11 losing seasons from 1945-55. Just winning 82 games and being in the right direction again would have been positively received by the organization.

But the aim proved to be higher -- much higher.

A younger team that had little experience with winning kept its adversity to a minimum -- in part because of Baker's guidance and the steady hands of key veterans like Scott Rolen, Orlando Cabrera, Arthur Rhodes, Ramon Hernandez and Miguel Cairo, who have all won for other teams.

Taking advantage of an NL Central that had only one other true contender -- the Cardinals -- the Reds have been in first or second place every day since May 3. There were no losing streaks of more than five games, and those stretches only happened twice all season. The Reds also took care of business better than any NL club with 30 series wins and had a flair for the dramatic. Cincinnati was second in the league with 44 come-from-behind-wins -- 22 of them in their final at-bat -- including Tuesday's long ball by Bruce.

For most of the season, the Reds have had the No. 1 ranked offense in the NL -- in hitting, runs, homers, RBIs, total bases and hitting with runners in scoring position. There were many contributors, but none proved more critical than Most Valuable Player candidate and All-Star Joey Votto, who also was a Triple Crown contender. Rolen and Cabrera were joined by Brandon Phillips and Votto to form one of the best infield defenses in the league.

"For a big part of the season, it's been a different guy every night," Cabrera said. "That's something that makes this team really dangerous and special at the same time. We all play defense. We all do something hitting-wise, driving in runs or getting a base hit. Anything can happen with this team."

On more than a few occasions, the season had chances to spin out of control -- only to be deftly reeled back in.

After a 7-11 start on April 24, the Reds responded from a Baker-held team meeting to win five in a row. On May 20 at Atlanta, the Reds blew eight-run leads and saw a grand slam cap a six-run bottom of the ninth for a loss. They came back and won seven of the next nine games. After being swept in three games at last-place Seattle in mid-June, Cincinnati broke off a run of 12 wins in 16 games.

A four-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies -- with three games lost in extra innings and another by a 1-0 score -- was a sour end to the first half. After the All-Star break, Cincinnati went 6-0-1 in the next seven series.

Nothing tested the Reds more than an embarrassing three-game sweep by St. Louis at Great American Ball Park from Aug. 9-11. Phillips' inflammatory pre-series trash talk about the Cardinals backfired and helped spark a benches-clearing scuffle that got Johnny Cueto suspended for seven games. The Reds were overpowered by Cardinals pitchers and were visibly pressing as they made mistakes.

However, divisions aren't decided in August. The Reds lifted themselves by winning seven in a row as St. Louis -- which made a panic Deadline trade and dealt key hitter Ryan Ludwick to the Padres -- started its fade. By Aug. 15, the Reds were in first place for good.

The team makeup only improved with the callup of lefty phenom Aroldis Chapman on Aug. 31. Chapman, the $30-million man that defected from Cuba, added more electricity with pitches that often blazed past hitters at over 100 mph.

With an 11-14 September, the Reds aren't exactly rolling into the playoffs. But they have about a week to get themselves ready.

In the past 15 years, the Reds endured turbulent times that included three different ownerships, four general managers and seven managers. Great American Ball Park opened in 2003, but until this season, didn't host many meaningful games. There were a few rebuilding plans that needed rebuilding, free agent signings that went bust (ie: Eric Milton) and top Draft picks that didn't pan out (ie: Chris Gruler).

Back in 1999, the Reds contended for the NL Wild Card vs. the Mets in a Game 163 at Cinergy Field, and were shut out by a five-run margin. During that offseason, Cincinnati landed superstar Ken Griffey Jr. in a trade with thoughts there would be playoffs aplenty. By 2001, Griffey and big slugger Adam Dunn were paired in the lineup with the idea of power hitting to the postseason.

The total number of playoff appearances yielded during that era was zero. On Tuesday night, that wait was over.

"It's an exciting time for the city," said Aaron Harang, the longest tenured member of the Reds -- since 2003. "You could feel the energy from the first pitch tonight. Everybody seemed to be really into the game. It was like every play, every hit, you heard the 'oohs' and 'ahhs' throughout the game. It means a lot to this city. I know they've had a tough time -- 15 years now -- we have to enjoy this tonight and look forward to the future."

Much of the crowd stuck around to celebrate as the Reds brought themselves and their champagne back on to the field.

"I hope it was as great for you guys as it was for me," Bruce told the fans.

There was little doubt that it was.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com Read his blog, Mark My Word and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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