CINCINNATI -- This season, with Dusty Baker at the helm, the Reds won 97 games and their second National League Central title in three seasons.
Amid a flurry of adversity to overcome -- including his minor stroke -- Baker might have done one of his best managing jobs in a 19-season career. He could even win NL Manager of the Year honors.
But will it be the final three games of the NL Division Series that write Baker's future in Cincinnati? His two-year contract expired upon the Reds' shocking elimination from the NLDS after taking a 2-0 lead.
"I'm not sure where my career is going here in Cincinnati," Baker said after the Reds lost, 6-4, to the Giants in Game 5. "We're going to talk about that in the next couple of days. But I'm not through managing yet. I have more to do."
Cincinnati, under Baker's steady hand, overcame the loss of three relievers to injury during Spring Training -- including new closer Ryan Madson -- and ended with the league's best bullpen ERA. When the team's best player, Joey Votto, went down with a knee injury in July, the team responded with its most inspired baseball, putting up a 32-16 record while increasing a one-game lead over the Cardinals to eight. At one point the Reds won 22 of 25 games to take first place.
Late last month, Baker missed 11 games after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. While in the hospital, he suffered a minor stroke and did not return until the final three games of the regular season. He not only missed the division-clincher on Sept. 22, he was not there for Homer Bailey's no-hitter on Sept. 28.
"I love playing for Dusty," Votto said. "I have nothing but the utmost respect for him. I don't really like commenting on contract situations, but I wish him the best and wish him the best in baseball."
Several minutes after the Reds' defeat, Baker appeared in the clubhouse and approached players at their lockers, hugging Votto, Jay Bruce, Ryan Ludwick and Brandon Phillips, among others.
Was it a "see you next time" hug? Or was it goodbye for good?
"I really hope Dusty is back next year," said Phillips, who spoke privately with Baker for several moments. "If he's not here, it's going to be kind of tough for me. I wanted to win this one for Dusty and for ourselves. Winning one for Dusty would have even been better, especially since he wasn't here when we clinched. We couldn't pile the champagne on him."
Baker, 63, is second among active managers in wins, with 1,581, but the big void on his resume is a World Series winner. Many felt that the Reds could be that team this season.
That includes CEO Bob Castellini, who did not offer Baker a contract extension before the season. Castellini, who has publicly supported Baker, has also made clear -- repeatedly -- that he wanted to go further than the 2010 Reds, who were swept by the Phillies in the NLDS.
Though that series was a quick rip of the bandage, the Reds' this time was extended torture. Two wins in San Francisco were followed by three straight losses in Cincinnati; the club didn't lose three in a row at home during the regular season. Baker is now 1-9 in the 10 games in which his team had a chance to take a postseason series -- including 0-3 this year -- since Game 6 of the 2002 World Series.
Despite his years of success, some fans complained about Baker. They seemingly never credited him with the successes, but they blamed him for the failures.
But over two winning seasons and three losing ones since joining the Reds in 2008, Baker has always had the backing of his players.
"He's the only manager that I know," Bruce said. "He's the one I'm comfortable with, and he's been great to me, to the team, to everyone. I would love to have him back, and the feeling is mutual, I think. He wants to come back. But there's a lot more to it than that. This is the team that he wants to be with, and we want him here. Since he's been here, we've made almost a complete turnaround."
But even with the players' backing, the decision is up to Castellini and general manager Walt Jocketty. Baker himself might even have a say. Does he expect to be back?
"I don't know, man," Baker said. "Right now I'm kind of numb in this situation."