Reds end 15-year playoff drought

The Reds are headed to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, completing the long-awaited trip with Jay Bruce's one dramatic swing.

Bruce homered on the first pitch from Tim Byrdak in the bottom of the ninth Tuesday night for a 3-2 victory over the Houston Astros that secured the NL Central title.

Elsewhere in the National League, Atlanta won to improve its wild-card chances.

At Cincinnati, it was a fitting finish to the unexpected championship drive. Cincinnati has won 22 games in its last at-bat, second-most in the majors.

Left-hander Aroldis Chapman (2-2) pitched a perfect ninth, topping out at 101 mph while showing playoff opponents the nasty stuff they can expect.

Bruce latched onto the first pitch from Byrdak (2-2) and lined it over the wall in center, sending teammates sprinting to home plate to pummel him after he touched home with the title-winning run while fireworks went off overhead.

With the title, Dusty Baker joined Bill McKechnie as the only managers to lead three NL teams to the playoffs. Baker also has made it with the Giants and Cubs.

The Reds sold 30,151 tickets for the clinching game — above-average for a cool September weeknight — and took the field almost tasting it. Second baseman Brandon Phillips said he doesn't drink and has never taken so much as a sip of champagne.

"Everybody is looking forward to seeing me do it," Phillips said. "I don't know how it's going to taste. I don't know what's going to happen."

Most Reds were novices at the sip-and-spray tradition. Four female fans in the upper deck wore shirts that, side-by-side, urged the home team to "Show Us The Bubbly."

They showed some defense when Drew Stubbs stretched above the wall in center to steal a two-run homer away from Carlos Lee in the third inning, drawing a standing ovation.

The crowd was on its feet again in the sixth, when the Reds loaded the bases with none out. Phillips tied it at 2 with an infield single to the hole at shortstop, but Bruce grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Bruce made up for it on his next swing.

The Reds celebrated their title a day after Philadelphia clinched its fourth straight NL East title — no surprise there. The Reds' recent history made them a most unexpected playoff team.

The Reds hadn't reached the postseason since 1995, when Davey Johnson took them to the NL championships series, then lost his job because owner Marge Schott didn't like him.

After that, Cincinnati lost its way.

The Reds went through three owners, five general managers and seven managers without once making it back to the postseason. They came close in 1999 under Jack McKeon, losing a playoff for the wild card to the Mets. Ken Griffey Jr. arrived the following year, raising expectations for a long run of division titles.

Instead, the bottom fell out.

Griffey was hurt often and the Reds plunged into a streak of nine straight losing seasons, their worst in a half-century. Not even the move into Great American Ball Park in 2003 made much of a difference. Junior came and went. The losing went on.

Cincinnati finished fourth last season, its second under Baker, but the franchise thought it had the makings of something and kept the roster intact.

Right call.

The Reds got into the race in mid-May and didn't crack under pressure. Instead, the defending-champion Cardinals fell apart. The two teams were separated by no more than three games from mid-May to mid-August, matching each other win-for-win.

An emerging core of young players pulled it off.

First baseman Joey Votto grew into an MVP candidate this season, ranking in the top three in batting, homers and RBIs. The Reds' youth-laden lineup became the NL's most prolific, leading in batting average, runs and homers. The defense became one of the NL's best.

And Chapman put some sizzle in the stretch drive when he was called up in August and hit 105 on radar guns.

It was an emotional night for Baker, who won his fourth division championship as a manager. He also took the 1997 Giants, 2000 Giants and 2003 Cubs to the playoffs. He's the ninth manager to lead three different franchises to the playoffs, joining McKechnie, Johnson, Tony La Russa, Jim Leyland, Billy Martin, Lou Piniella, Joe Torre and Dick Williams.

Baker's father, Johnnie, died last November after a long illness.

"It's really special for me this year because I think about my dad a lot," he said. "Last year was very difficult. Every midnight call I got I thought was about my dad. He wasn't supposed to live past the All-Star break, then he wasn't supposed to live until August, then he wasn't supposed to live until September. He lasted until I got home.

"So I just knew when the season started that my dad was with me big-time."

The Reds won't be a postseason favorite, given their inexperience and their struggles against other top teams. They've gone 58-28 against losing teams, only 30-41 against those with .500 or better records.

For them, just getting there was a breakthrough.

Braves 3, Marlins 2 — Eric Hinske hit a pinch-hit, two-run homer in the seventh inning for Atlanta.

The Braves held a half-game lead over San Diego for the wild card entering Tuesday. The Chicago Cubs played at the Padres later Tuesday.

Trailing 1-0, the Braves rallied for three runs in the seventh off Anibal Sanchez (12-12), who had held Atlanta to three hits in six innings.

Melky Cabrera led off the seventh with a single and was sacrificed to second. Brooks Conrad tripled off the center field fence, scoring Cabrera. On the play, Florida center fielder Cameron Maybin was injured when he hit the fence attempting the catch. He appeared to hurt a leg and was taken off the field in a golf cart.

After Rick Ankiel struck out, Hinske hit a 2-2 pitch well over the right-center field fence for his 11th home run and a 3-1 Atlanta lead.

Dan Uggla hit a solo homer off Peter Moylan in the eighth to get the Marlins within 3-2. It was his 32nd of the season and his 100th RBI.

Craig Kimbrel (4-0) got the win with a hitless seventh, striking out the side, and Billy Wagner earned his 36th save with a scoreless ninth, giving up a walk and striking out three.

Atlanta starter Tim Hudson, pitching on three days' rest, allowed seven hits, one run, walked four and struck out four in six innings.

It was the seventh time he had gone on three days' rest and was 2-0 with a 2.61 ERA in three regular season starts and 0-1 with a 3.97 ERA in three postseason starts. His last regular season start on short rest was Sept. 17, 2006, against the Marlins, allowing three hits and one run in seven innings.

Hudson was 1-4 with a 6.10 ERA in five previous September starts after going 6-0 with a 1.43 ERA in his previous eight starts.

The Braves improved their home record to 54-23, tops in the majors.

The Braves missed a chance to score in the sixth when Brian McCann was easily thrown out at the plate on a two-out double into the right field corner by Derrek Lee. Uggla, the cutoff man, made a perfect throw to catcher Brad Davis.

The Marlins had two other opportunities against Hudson, who got Gaby Sanchez on a grounder to short with the bases loaded and two outs in the third. The other came in the fifth after Hudson walked two with one out, Uggla hit a liner to right with Jason Heyward making a long running catch to save at least one run. Hudson then retired Sanchez for the third out.