CINCINNATI -- One way or another, the outcome of the at-bat was ready to be written into the lore of Cincinnati sports history. Jay Bruce fouled off a first pitch. Then another. Then another. Again and again, he fought off each fastball from Sergio Romo. Again and again, he made contact. Again and again, he offered hope to the huddled masses that he was about to deliver the Reds to their rightful place in the National League Championship Series.
If we go back now, we can count eight foul balls in the 12-pitch at-bat. It felt like 80. It was the at-bat that wouldn't end. But the feeling among the faithful in the facility was that it would end well for the home club."There wasn't a doubt in my mind," veteran Scott Rolen said later, "that something special was going to happen right there." You can't have heartbreak without belief. Belief is a prerequisite. And Bruce, like this Reds team, had given a city so often heartbroken on the sporting scene something to believe in as each foul ball flew off his bat. But when the ball was finally put in play, Bruce flew out. A lazy fly ball to left, easily caught by Xavier Nady. You won't find a better at-bat with a worse ending. "Everybody was saying, 'Good at-bat,'" Bruce said. "Well, good at-bats end better than that." So, too, do good seasons. For the Reds, the season ended here, with a 6-4 loss to the Giants on Thursday afternoon, in Game 5 of an NL Division Series they had led, two games to none, when they arrived home earlier this week. The Reds went down to the Ohio River, and into the river they dove. Sunk, really. What happened here these last few days was a stunning sequence of missed opportunities. What happened here was heartbreak, in a town that knows it all too well. To meet the prerequisite upon which heartbreak pounces, the Reds won 97 games in the regular season, none by accident. To prove their value beyond Joey Votto, they notched 32 of those wins in the 45-game stretch Votto missed due to two knee surgeries. To make life a little easier on the World Series prognosticators, the Reds offered a deep lineup, a healthy and effective rotation and a bullish bullpen anchored by a Cuban import with 100-mph heat. This wasn't a juggernaut. But look around. You won't find any clubs wearing the juggernaut label in 2012. What the 2012 Reds were was a very solid team with all the makings of championship potential. A team, it seemed, that could finally get Dusty Baker over that final hurdle. Belief. It was available to those willing to jump on board. They've had bouts with belief in these parts before. The top-ranked Bearcats prior to the 2000 NCAA tournament, the 2005 Bengals. Both of those teams had their belief betrayed in ugly ways. Kenyon Martin broke his leg, Carson Palmer blew out his knee. To that hurtful history, the Reds introduce Johnny Cueto, their staff ace who tweaked his oblique just eight pitches into Game 1 of this series. "Any time the team you're playing only faces eight pitches from your ace," Bruce said, "that's not a bad thing for them, that's for sure." It took a couple days, but that injury caught up to the Reds. It was the difference between starting Homer Bailey in Game 4 and starting Mike Leake in Game 4. And make no mistake: Game 4 is the real rub here. The Reds were in every other game. Game 4 was the game in which they placed a losing bet on Leake, a game in which they could not match the Giants' aggression, be it at the plate or in the managerial maneuverings. Game 4 was the game where the Reds' outlook shifted from should-win to must-win, and that's a dangerous road to go down. The Reds found that out the hard way. Mat Latos got rattled in the fifth. The inning unraveled around him, with rookie Zack Cozart making a costly fielding error and Latos leaving one over the middle for Buster Posey, who did what likely MVPs do with pitches over the middle. Give the Reds a ton of credit for fighting back in the wake of that blast. Two runs in the fifth, another in the sixth. But when they brought the tying run to the plate or put it on base in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, they couldn't deliver that magic moment. Ryan Ludwick came to the plate with two on and two out in the seventh. He had just homered an inning earlier. But Jeremy Affeldt got him to ground back to the mound to end the inning. Belief betrayed. Pinch-hitter Dioner Navarro sent a fly to center with two on and two out in the eighth. If it lands and skips to the wall, both runs come home. But Angel Pagan was not in the standard no-doubles defense, and so he was able to reach it with a diving grab. Belief betrayed. Finally, in the ninth. Bruce at the plate. The crowd louder than the multicolored button-up Baker had worn to his pregame news conference. Bruce put up an impressive plate appearance, the kind of duel you'll only find in October. The crowd was ready to give the loudest "Bruuuuce!" chant you'll see outside of a Springsteen concert. But Bruce flew out. And then Rolen struck out. And just like that, the season was over. "The postseason," Bruce said, "is all about capitalizing on the opportunities you're presented with. We just didn't." And now heartbreak lives where belief once stood.