"At pretty much the highest level possible," Bruce said, "when it comes to being on base and being efficient and getting the offense going. He's kind of been the cog that makes the wheel go."
The Reds' wheel is still in spin, despite an incredibly frustrating regular season. Yes, they won 90 games. Yes, they are here on the postseason stage, a place 20 also-rans would love to be.
But unlike the Pirates, their opponent in the NL Wild Card Game on Tuesday at PNC Park (8:07 p.m. ET, TBS), the Reds popped no champagne upon clinching this spot. They don't carry that "happy to be here" glow. They entered the season with serious World Series aspirations, and they still have such aspirations, albeit with a win-or-go-home hurdle now in place. On the road, no less.
Even for Choo -- who, at 31 and in his ninth season in the bigs is finally getting his first October opportunity -- the Wild Card Game is being viewed not as an alluring appointment but as a necessary evil.
"Maybe when the game starts, or before the game starts, maybe I will feel a little bit different," he said. "Right now, I don't feel like it's real. I feel like it's the regular season right now."
If Choo performs as he did in the regular season, the Reds are in good shape. With a .285 average, .423 on-base percentage, 21 homers, 34 doubles and 54 RBIs out of the No. 1 spot, he had arguably his best offensive season since his 94-game breakout with the Indians in 2008. Choo and No. 3 hitter Joey Votto reached base 300 times each this season, becoming just the third pair of teammates to achieve that feat in 75 years.
"In my opinion, if you don't drive in 100 runs hitting fourth or fifth for the Cincinnati Reds, you're not going to do it anywhere," Bruce said. "With Joey and him, those guys are getting on base 42-44 percent of the time. That's something that's unheard of for a pair of teammates."
Indeed, Choo was everything the Reds envisioned when they made the bold move to acquire him from the Indians last December. The word "bold" applies because Cincinnati, which sent Didi Gregorius to Arizona and Drew Stubbs to the Tribe as part of the nine-player deal, knew there was a very good chance it would only have Choo, a pending free agent, for one season.
All the more reason why the Reds want to take advantage of this postseason spot, even if it's not an altogether ideal one.
"Hopefully, it goes for a long time," general manager Walt Jocketty said.
Jocketty will undoubtedly offer Choo a one-year qualifying deal this winter to ensure that Cincinnati will receive a compensation pick in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft if Choo departs. Hunter Pence's five-year, $90 million extension with the Giants on Sunday could provide a base point upon which Choo and agent Scott Boras look to build in contract talks. The Mets and Cubs have already been among the clubs rumored to have interest in Choo, and the Reds will have to decide if they'll pay full-market value for Choo, turn over center field to speedster Billy Hamilton or fill the hole elsewhere.
However it shakes out, there has been an onus on the need for Choo and Cincinnati to make the most of this particular lineup concoction in 2013. That's what made the third-place finish in the NL Central so frustrating.
"I was hoping for a better record," Choo said. "Last year, we had 97 wins. This year wasn't better than last year. Ryan Ludwick was hurt Opening Day. [Johnny] Cueto [being hurt] was huge. If healthy this year, the whole season, we're in first place, I think."
Instead, Choo and the Reds find themselves at PNC Park, facing a Pirates team that swept them over the weekend and looking to make the most of their seeding situation.
This isn't exactly the type of October berth Choo envisioned for his first postseason appearance, but it's an October berth, all the same. And no matter what his future holds, Choo still has an eye on what is possible in the present.
"I am not looking for just playoffs," he said. "I want to go to the World Series."