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09/29/11 10:00 AM ET

Reds came up well short of lofty expectations

Club finished below .500 after winning NL Central title in 2010

CINCINNATI -- Few people, if any, envisioned this type of outcome for the 2011 Reds.

Cincinnati was a 91-win division winner in 2010 with its entire nucleus of players back and a wealth of young talent waiting in the wings, just in case. It was a popular pick to reach the playoffs again because there was little reason to think it wasn't possible.

What happened? Not only did the Reds not repeat as National League Central champions, they didn't come close.

"It's been a fight and struggle all year, except for the first six games, basically," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "You have years like that. Some years, everything goes great. Other years, it seems like it's a fight."

There were plenty of factors that led to the setback, but it began with the rotation. The starting five was expected to be the biggest strength of the club, yet ended ranked near the bottom of the NL in ERA.

Before the Reds left Spring Training, the rotation's depth was already under siege. Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey began the season on the disabled list with relatively minor arm injuries and Bronson Arroyo came down with mononucleosis. One year after winning a career-best 17 games, Arroyo never went on the disabled list but was also never really himself on the mound. He endured the worst season of his career and set a club record for home runs allowed.

By May, Cincinnati's Opening Day starter and ace -- Edinson Volquez -- had pitched so inconsistently that he earned the first of two trips to Triple-A Louisville. No. 2 starter Travis Wood did likewise by June. Mike Leake initially struggled out of the gate but regained his footing after an early two-game stint in Louisville. He wound up leading the team in victories and strikeouts.

Once recovered by May, Cueto hit the ground running and stepped up to become a No. 1-type starter. He finished with a 2.31 ERA but only nine wins because of bad luck and some blown saves.

Although there were extended spells of clutch-hitting lapses throughout the season, the Reds were still one of the top scoring teams in the NL and led the league again in home runs. It underscored what could have been done had the pitching been as good.

Joey Votto backed up his 2010 NL Most Valuable Player Award season with similar numbers. Votto might have been in the MVP conversation again had the Reds been in contention, and if given more protection behind him. Pitchers worked around Votto a lot, partially because Scott Rolen struggled as he battled with his problematic left shoulder and Jonny Gomes never caught a spark before being traded in late July.

Jay Bruce had an incredible May, batting .342 with 12 homers and 33 RBIs, but the Reds didn't climb on his shoulders and went 14-15 for the month.

Nevertheless, the 24-year-old Bruce was a first-time All-Star based on that month. He would have liked more consistency overall but he can feel satisfaction for reaching career highs in homers and RBIs. Brandon Phillips joined Votto, Bruce and Rolen as All-Stars and turned in another solid offensive year and a superlative defensive season that should net him a third NL Gold Glove Award.

But as a team, all the ingredients didn't come together like they had a year ago. The Reds started the season 5-0 and held first place as late as mid-May. They were three games out of first place just after the All-Star break. It was a club that seemed perpetually waiting for something to happen, and it waited itself right out of the race as the Brewers took off and took the division title.

"It's been a long, long disappointing season," Phillips said. "All you can really do is just learn from this season and next year we can get things going."

What follows is a look back at the 2011 season that was:

Record: 79-83, third place in NL Central

Defining moment: All losses count as one on the ledger, but no game was likely more memorable -- or more painful -- for the Reds than what happened on May 25 vs. the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. They were handed a 5-4 defeat in 19 innings in a game that took over six hours to play. And to add some extra salt in the wound, it was Phillies second baseman Wilson Valdez who pitched a perfect top of the 19th to earn the victory.

With 17 men stranded, there were more than enough chances to avoid this fate. Francisco Cordero blew a one-run lead in the 10th inning. And in the 11th inning, with Votto batting, Phillips was having a chat with Jimmy Rollins when he got picked off second base. The Reds fell to third place and never climbed higher in the standings the rest of the season.

What went right: Cueto made the next step as a pitcher in both maturity and performance. He altered his delivery to something reminiscent of Luis Tiant, and although it cut down on strikeouts, he got more ground balls and lasted longer in games. ... Cordero essentially had only one bad week right before the All-Star break but was a shut-down closer for most of 2011 who cut down hits and walks. He also marched his way up the all-time list in career saves. ... Votto cemented his credentials as one of the best hitters in baseball. ... Phillips was almost a nightly fixture on top play highlights with some fantastic defense. ... The Reds got to see some of their prospects and none performed better at the plate than Yonder Alonso, who got his first big league exposure in left field with mixed results defensively.

What went wrong: Although injuries played a part, the starting pitching did not live up to its billing ... Rolen's shoulder was never healthy and the Reds missed his production from the cleanup spot. That issue was compounded by the fact that Gomes never got going at the plate, which left a big void in the middle of the order. ... Drew Stubbs, who struck out more than 200 times, couldn't hold down the leadoff spot in the order as hoped even though he ranked high in steals and scored a lot of runs. ... Paul Janish did not succeed as a first-time regular shortstop and, along with his backup, Edgar Renteria, did not produce offensively most of the season. Defensively, Janish made uncharacteristic errors. ... Nick Masset, perhaps tired from heavy use the past three seasons, wasn't lights-out in the late innings like he was in 2009-10. ... The Reds were among the league leaders in one-run losses, and they were 6-12 in Interleague Play this season after going 8-7 vs. the American League last year.

Biggest surprise: While the Brewers and Cardinals were expected to be tough rivals, the NL Central still seemed like the Reds' to lose heading into the season. Teams can fall short of expectations, but for this club to go from 91 wins to below .500 a season later with its wealth of talent, it should go down as a big disappointment.

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.