When Juan Guzman couldn't pick up a routine bunt, another game began to slip away from the Cincinnati Reds on a 47-degree afternoon when fans broke out their favorite parkas and pitchers were forced to blow on their hands to stay warm. Guzman's mistake came right after he allowed hits on a pair of bad pitches but right before center fielder Mike Cameron made a bad throw.
Then the normally reliable Cincinnati bullpen was torched for a second straight game, the normally reliable Pokey Reese stranded four base runners and the normally reliable Barry Larkin and Sean Casey failed to deliver with men on base. Suddenly, a team that had seemed so loose 24 hours earlier became quiet and tight.
And the playoff berth that once seemed inevitable appeared to become a grim, difficult mission for the Reds. They began to see their dream slip away with a second straight loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, this one, 10-6, in front of 20,000 at County Stadium.
"We're in a predicament now," Casey said. "A couple of days ago, the ball was in our court. Now, it's not."
Houston's victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers gave the Astros (96-65) a one-game lead over the Reds (95-66) in the National League Central entering the final day of the season. The Reds are tied with the New York Mets in the race for the wild-card berth after the Mets' victory over Pittsburgh tonight at Shea Stadium.
If the Mets and Reds are tied after Sunday's final games, they will have a one-game playoff Monday afternoon in Cincinnati.
This isn't what the Reds expected when they arrived here tied with the Astros for the division lead and leading the Mets by two games with three to play in the wild-card race. Now, two losses to the sub-.500 Brewers threaten to ruin six months of good work.
"I just think we're a little tight right now," Reds left fielder Greg Vaughn said.
Larkin was more blunt.
"I'm emotionally drained," he said.
To the Reds' credit, they made no effort to gloss over their situation. They knew they should have closed the deal by now. They arrived here Friday afternoon on the verge of their first playoff appearance in four years. They were prepared to celebrate, having stored champagne in a back room, and prepared to tell the world how a small-market team could succeed in the major leagues of the 1990s. But Cincinnati allowed a three-run lead to slip away Friday. Today the Brewers pounded the Reds for seven runs in a nightmarish third inning that included two errors and a pair of defensive lapses.
"No one is trying to mess up," Vaughn said. "I just think the guys are trying a little too hard. I told everyone the Brewers were going to play the game hard, they were going to play the game right. We've got to come out tomorrow and win. It's that simple."
Vaughn was asked what he would tell the young Reds before Sunday afternoon's final game of the season, when Cincinnati's Pete Harnisch takes the mound against Milwaukee's Cal Eldred, who will be starting his first game in three weeks.
"Just be yourself," Vaughn said. "Just do what you did all year. Don't try to do anything more than you can do. If we all look at it that way, we'll be okay. We can't try to do too much. If you do that, you're in unfamiliar territory."
As if their situation wasn't bad enough, the Reds enter the final game with a tired bullpen. Guzman, who was acquired from the Baltimore Orioles at the trading deadline, lasted 2 1/3 innings in his biggest start of the season, forcing Manager Jack McKeon to use six relievers. That bullpen has been one of the National League's best this season, but in two games against the Brewers, it has yielded eight runs in 8 1/3 innings. Meanwhile, Milwaukee's bullpen--unknown beyond Kenosha--has allowed one run in 8 1/3 innings.
Guzman was charged with five hits and four earned runs. That's as many runs as he allowed in his previous four starts combined, but he also was hurt by shoddy defense. He hurt himself by not fielding rookie pitcher Kyle Peterson's bunt in the third, but Cameron's error kept the inning alive. The Brewers sent 13 batters to the plate that inning and took a 7-1 lead that all but left the Reds thinking about Sunday. Cincinnati got a three-run home run from Dmitri Young in the fourth, but never really got back in the game.