The 1986 Cincinnati Reds began the season with a lot of hope. The previous September, player-manager Pete Rose had broken Ty Cobbs’ career record for hits and the team played well down the stretch to take a surprising second-place finish. In ways both good and bad, the 1986 MLB season was a rerun. The Reds continued to show promise, but again started slow and their second-place finish didn’t have them in serious contention much of the year.
Pitching was the problem. The team was ninth in the league in ERA and no one was able to step up as an ace. It wasn’t for lack of trying. The Reds made significant deals to bring in Bill Gullickson from Montreal and John Denny, the 1983 NL Cy Young Award winner, from Philadelphia. Gullickson pitched pretty well, winning 15 games with a 3.38 ERA. Denny was adequate, winning 11 and posting an ERA of 4.20. But there was no staff ace and the bullpen wasn’t deep.
Tom Browning joined Gullickson and Denny in the “pretty good” camp, with an ERA of 3.81 and getting 14 wins. The rest of the rotation was a problem. Mario Soto had been one of the NL’s top pitchers in the early part of the decade, including a runner-up finish to Denny in the Cy Young voting of 1983. But Soto, renowned for his great changeup, lost it in 1986, finishing with a 4.71 ERA and his career ended a couple years later.
Rose had a reliable closer in John Franco and 24-year-old Ron Robinson was incredibly versatile out of the pen, with his 14 saves and 10 wins being key to holding the staff together. Ted Power did a mix of starting and relieving and finished with a 3.70 ERA.
If the pitching was held back by a lack of star power at the top, the same could not be said of an offense that was the key to Cincinnati’s ultimate second-place finish.
The brightest star in both Cincy and one of the best young players in all of baseball was 24-year-old leftfielder of Eric Davis, and he could do it all. “Eric The Red” finished with a stat line of .378 on-base percentage/.523 slugging percentage. He hit 27 home runs and stole 80 bases. And he essentially carried the Reds’ offense to be the third-most productive in the National League.
Davis got help from the other end of the career spectrum. Dave Parker was 35-years-old and he still hit 31 home runs and drove in 116 runs. Another key veteran was third baseman Buddy Bell, who finished with a .362/.445 stat line at age 34.
Further help came from centerfielder Eddie Milner who slugged .446. Rose was also breaking in two young shortstops and trying decide which way to go between Kurt Stillwell and Barry Larkin. Stillwell got most of the at-bats in 1986, but Larkin would eventually win the job. Good call—he made the Hall of Fame while Stillwell was traded to Kansas City and not heard from again. 1986 was a learning year for both.
Rose also sought to wake up the echoes of the Big Red Machine’s glory days by re-signing old teammate Tony Perez, now 44-years-old. Rose also played himself in 72 games, at the age of 45. Neither had anything left in the tank.
The Reds started the season 4-3, but then lost three straight to the Astros. It started a 3-16 stretch when Cincinnati lost six of seven to Houston and five of six to the New York Mets, the two teams that would ultimately end up in the National League Championship Series. The Reds fell as many as ten games back and when Memorial Day rolled around they were 16-23 and in last place, though having crawled back to within six of the lead.
After losing three straight in Los Angeles, with Franco coming on twice in tie games and losing both, Cincinnati was again in a double-digit hole in the NL West (the Reds, along with the Astros were in the West prior to the realignment of 1994).
The week before the All-Star break finally brought some really good results. The Reds went to Shea Stadium in New York and unloaded on the great Mets’ pitching staff, scoring 23 runs and sweeping a three-game series. Pitching took over when the road trip continued in Montreal. Gullickson and Denny had strong outings, Cincy took three of four and by the break they were sniffing the .500 mark, having reached 41-44 and only 5 ½ games back.
In late July, the Reds were 47-49 and 6 ½ games back. A road trip to the West Coast all but destroyed realistic hopes of an NL West title. They lost seven of nine and dropped 9 ½ games out. The team surged in August, going 17-8, and was over .500 by Labor Day at 66-64. They were up to second place. But the odds of catching Houston were still very long, with a seven-game deficit.
On September 8, the Reds had one last shot at a miracle push. They would go to Houston for two games and then host a return visit from the Astros for a three-game set. It would take at least four wins to even keep the race interesting and maybe even a sweep. But there was still a puncher’s chance.
It didn’t take long for hopes to be squelched. The offense mustered only three hits off Nolan Ryan in a 3-1 loss. The following night, with Browning was in a scoreless duel with soon-to-be NL Cy Young winner Mike Scott. In the sixth inning, Browning was touched for four runs, the game got away and ended 9-2. To add insult to injury, the Astros also swept the return trip in Cincinnati as the potent Reds’ offense could only score five runs in the three games.
Once again, when the pressure was off, Cincinnati was able to get a nice little run, winning twelve of their final sixteen games. The final 86-76 record was heartening, given the team was still just two years removed from being one of the National League’s worst. But the pattern of playing their way out of the race before rushing in to finish second was a pattern that would continue for two more years until the Rose era finally came crashing down.