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Plain Nasty

As if the rotation wasn't hell enough on opponents, the Reds' bullpen, anchored by its unhittable closer, is a machine built to dominate in October

Cincinnati's signature dish isn't chili the way most people know it. It's more savory, without the spiciness that defines traditional chili. But if you're in the Queen City and insist on heat, check out Great American Ball Park, where the Reds are torching the NL thanks in large part to the best flamethrower in the game. Lefthanded closer Aroldis Chapman, 24, whose fastball has been clocked at over 105 mph, has harnessed that velocity and become the most unhittable pitcher in baseball history (chart). Since June 26 he has converted 17 straight save chances and generally treated hitters like that 12-year-old with the suspicious facial hair treats Little Leaguers: 18 1/3 shutout innings, a 39-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio, with 57% of batters faced going down with a whiff. Overall he has a 1.34 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings.

Chapman is the most recognizable pitcher on a staff pulling off the unlikely trick of making the Reds, who had the best record in baseball through Sunday (66--42), a run-prevention team in a home park that favors hitters in a big way. Cincinnati has allowed the second-fewest runs in the NL; it begins with a rotation that could turn out to be historically healthy. The Reds have used only five starters, which if carried through to the end of the year would match the 2003 Mariners and the 1966 Dodgers for the fewest since the deadball era. Righthander Johnny Cueto is the ace, and he has the lowest ERA in the NL since the start of '11 (2.41). Cueto's ascent began last year, when he sharply improved his ground ball rate to more than half his batted balls in play, and he's followed that this year by cutting his walks to 5.8% of batters faced. (The NL average for starters is 7.5%.) Cueto is joined by former first-round draft picks Mike Leake (4.51 ERA) and Homer Bailey (3.98), who was selected out of high school in 2004 but is only now becoming an effective starter. Trade pickup Mat Latos (3.94) and veteran Bronson Arroyo (3.87) round out a group that is one of four NL rotations striking out at least three men for every one it walks—a key measure of effectiveness.

The offense hasn't matched the pitchers' performance: Despite that terrific home hitting environment, the Reds are just seventh in the league in runs. First baseman Joey Votto was the NL MVP favorite before undergoing July 17 knee surgery. Votto (.465 OBP), who is expected to return soon, and catcher Ryan Hanigan (.352) are the only Reds who treat getting on base as more than a chore. The leadoff spot has been a nightmare; Cincinnati has a horrific .248 OBP at the top of the order. Third baseman Scott Rolen's decline (.236/.312/.382 in just 61 games) and centerfielder Drew Stubbs's failure to develop (.239/.309/.408) have contributed to the Reds' OBP deficit. The key for this lineup will be finding someone—internally or externally—to get on base ahead of Votto and Jay Bruce in the middle of the order.

In the twilight of his managerial career Dusty Baker—never a favorite of the analytical crowd—seems to be applying lessons he learned in previous stops to build a winner in Cincinnati. Baker has been careful with his pitchers this season: Only Cueto has gone over 120 pitches, and he did so just once. Baker has been much more patient with young players in Cincinnati, sticking with Bruce and Stubbs in previous years and with shortstop Zack Cozart this season, and has expertly managed a bullpen that has a 2.81 ERA even without counting Chapman. Baker's still a bit too enamored of small ball, especially with a roster that has power in most lineup spots. But on the whole, he has been one of the reasons for the Reds' success.

Much of this roster was in place two years ago, when the Reds reached the postseason and were dismissed by the Phillies in three games in the NLDS. With a much deeper pitching staff, featuring an unhittable reliever and maybe the best hitter in baseball, a return trip this October is likely to last much longer.

HEAT LIGHTNING

How dominant has Aroldis Chapman been this year? He's on track for the highest strikeout percentage ever—and could become the first pitcher to whiff at least half the men he faces (min: 50 innings pitched). Here's how Chapman's season compares so far with the alltime strikeout percentage leaders

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Photograph by ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES

CONTROL FREAK Chapman has always thrown gas, but now he knows where it's going: His walk rate is nearly 70% lower than it was last year.

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JAKE ROTH/US PRESSWIRE

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KATHY WILLENS/AP

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ABELIMAGES/GETTY IMAGES

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TOM DIPACE

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MIKE CASSESE/REUTERS

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KIRBY LEE/WIREIMAGE.COM

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JAKE ROTH/US PRESSWIRE

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HANNAH FOSLIEN/GETTY IMAGES