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Reds well positioned to steal NL Central flag

Despite Votto's slump, pitching and schedule could conspire to topple Bucs, Cards

CINCINNATI -- The Reds have been in third place in the National League Central since June 21, and so it's deceptively easy to assume that's where they'll wind up.

But to harp on the standings is to ignore that the Reds posted the best record of the three Central contenders in August. And a couple of noteworthy developments in recent days might encourage you to give the Reds, currently three back of the Pirates and 1 1/2 games behind the Cardinals, a good, hard look as -- dare I say -- the favorite to win this division.

1. They just took three of four from a second-place Cardinals club that is already reeling offensively and is going to be without its most productive hitter for at least a few days, possibly longer.

2. Sports Illustrated just put potential NL Most Valuable Player Andrew McCutchen on its cover, inviting the cruel and unusual threat of a jinx to a long-suffering Buccos fan base that simply doesn't deserve it.

All right, sure, that latter point hardly qualifies as actual analysis, and I don't expect McCutchen to break his leg or the Pirates to plummet.

I do, however, think it's fair to wonder what the next few weeks will be like for a Bucs team unaccustomed to the increasing weight of a September pennant chase. They've got great leadership, improved depth brought about by the wonders of the waiver wire and a fan base that is going to come out full throttle for their remaining 11 home games. But none of that is necessarily a precursor to the steady pulse that will be required of them as the month evolves.

More to the point, they've still got six head-to-heads with the Reds, so Cincinnati's four-game deficit in the loss column doesn't loom quite as large as it normally would at this point on the calendar.

"Usually my teams finish stronger than most teams," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "We've been resting some guys along the way and try to play everybody. Hopefully down the stretch here it will lead to some wins."

The Cards, we know well from recent years, have the heartbeat for this division battle. But the Allen Craig injury affects their offensive formula considerably, and it compounds the concern over their rotation's second-half regression.

Don't get me wrong. The point here is not to pick apart the Pirates and Cards, two formidable clubs entirely worthy of their spots in the standings.

The point, rather, is to point out that if the Reds do make a run here in the furious final three weeks, it ought not qualify as a complete surprise.

For one, they've got that prerequisite one-two punch atop their rotation that it takes to tackle this time of year.

Among NL starters in the second half, Mat Latos' 1.97 ERA ranks fourth and Homer Bailey's 2.63 mark ranks 12th. It's not the Dodgers' three-headed monster of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Ricky Nolasco (and for the record, Latos will oppose Greinke and Bailey will face Kershaw on Saturday and Sunday, respectively), but it's not too shabby. Couple that with Thursday's successful return of Tony Cingrani, and things are looking up for the starting staff.

And even in a season in which setup men Jonathan Broxton (30 2/3 innings) and Sean Marshall (seven innings) have been limited by injuries, with Broxton done for the year, and Aroldis Chapman not quite as automatic as he was a year ago (a high standard), the Reds have managed to piece together a reasonably effective bullpen.

"Before we get to Chapman," Baker said, "we still have to kind of mix and match and hope that the guys come through. We'll have to go with matchups, who we think matches up with this guy or that guy and hope [we're] right. Try not to match a fastball pitcher with a fastball hitter."

The upside, though, is the impending return of Marshall, who threw a satisfying bullpen session Thursday and could return as soon as next week, and the potential influx of would-be rotation ace Johnny Cueto into the mix.

Offensively, the Reds have one primary issue in the immediate, and that's Joey Votto's sagging bat. He's mired in a miserable funk in which he's hit .189 since Aug. 10, including an ugly 0-for-7 performance in a Wednesday loss loaded with missed opportunities (and, regrettably, late-inning bunting).

"We're all capable of slumps," Baker said. "I just never thought Joey would stay in one this long."

Yet even with their No. 3 hitter a non-factor, the Reds have been getting improved run production since Brandon Phillips moved to the No. 2 spot last week. And count me among those willing to bet that Votto, who has an abnormally low .217 batting average on balls in play during this down stretch, makes the necessary adjustments before long.

As you know, the Reds are imperfect. I think, in an honest moment, Baker might admit this is far from the best bench he's had to work with in his career, even with Blazin' Billy Hamilton aboard to swipe some late-inning bags. And maybe that deficiency hurts them in those October moments when the extents of your 25-man roster are exposed -- particularly in the NL. And Phillips' early exit from Thursday's game with a pulled quadriceps (it didn't appear to be serious) is a reminder of how fragile tired bodies are this time of year. Anything can go wrong.

But sometimes you get so swept up in the standings that you forget we're talking about a team 17 games over .500, with a plus-100 run differential (trailing only that of the Braves and Cards). A team that, after this weekend set with the Dodgers, will play 12 of its next 15 against the Cubs, Brewers, Astros and Mets and six of its final nine (including the final three at home) against the Pirates team it is chasing.

Look, I'm not promising you the Reds are going to win the Central. I'm just saying they are far from your average third-place squad.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.
Read More: Cincinnati Reds, Jonathan Broxton, Johnny Cueto, Aroldis Chapman, Joey Votto, Homer Bailey, Mat Latos