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Third to first? Reds like chances in tough division

Quietly moving 2 1/2 games out of Central lead, club only too happy to fly under radar

MILWAUKEE -- In the midst of the best divisional race in baseball, there should be something for everybody in the gold, silver and bronze positions.

With the second Wild Card in each league firmly in place for a second year, one division is currently in a position to supply the postseason with three teams. That would be the National League Central. In the current order of placement, the teams would be the Pirates, the Cardinals, the Reds.

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But it's close, and, recently, getting closer. St. Louis is just two games out of first. Cincinnati is just 2 1/2 games out. The nearest Wild Card competitor, Arizona, is six games behind the Reds.

The Reds have been on a recent roll, winning their last five and nine of their last 11. They opened a four-game series in Milwaukee on Thursday night with a 2-1 victory over the Brewers. Tony Cingrani was the winning pitcher. He has been a key component for the Reds, moving into the rotation in place of the injured Johnny Cueto and putting up a 2.12 ERA in his last eight starts.

Catcher Devin Mesoraco was all over this game with two hits, one run scored, hustle on the bases and a big defensive play, catching a foul bunt at the screen with two on and none out in the Milwaukee seventh.

"The popups like that, that are nice and soft, they look a lot harder than what they actually are," he said. "It's like a wounded duck. You just have to catch it."

Mesoraco scored the Reds' first run after reaching first on a play on which he collided with Milwaukee first baseman Juan Francisco, who is listed at 240 pounds, a truly conservative estimate.

Fortunately for Mesoraco, he fell on top of Francisco, then got up, reached second, and scored on a hit by Zack Cozart on a close play at home.

"[Francisco] was right in the baseline, I had nowhere else to go," Mesoraco said. "He was a good cushion, you know? I was pretty well gassed from going to first, then to second, and then Cozart swung at the first pitch. I hadn't even caught my breath and I was running home."

If these Reds are at the moment a third-place team, they are the best third-place team in baseball. More to the point of their current undertaking, they are the only third-place team currently in a position to qualify for the postseason.

The one-year-old Wild Card format places a premium on winning a division, since it places the Wild Card teams in a one-game playoff. This makes winning a division the much more solid postseason proposition. But it doesn't disqualify some Wild Card team from winning everything in sight.

"We're just trying to get to the dance," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "When you get to the dance, you'd rather have the tuxedo on, which means that you won a division. But if you don't, if you've got to show up in shorts, I've got skinny legs, but I'll show up in shorts, just as long as I get to go to the dance. Because once you get there, anything can happen.

"Some of the best teams, the ones that have gone the furthest, are the ones that have had to take the toughest road to get there. Look at the road San Francisco took last year. I mean, how many elimination games did they play? A lot of good teams that I've been on, the teams that went the furthest had the most elimination games. Maybe this [current format] was designed to make it harder for Wild Card teams."

It certainly was. But based on last season's success, this is a postseason format with a future.

"One thing for sure, the current system is not going to change any time soon," Baker said. "And it's made for better baseball, to the end, I think. It's made for fewer teams making wholesale changes or selling their team off, because a lot of teams still figure they still have a chance. Before this current system, on Aug. 15, there were a lot of teams thinking about what they were going to do on Oct. 2. So I kind of like it, really."

The 2013 Reds are in a truly difficult division race. But they have reasons to feel very good about their chances. Baker's better teams have typically finished strong. Last season, the Reds went 44-37 in the first half and then 53-28 in the second, as they won the NL Central by nine games.

"It's how you take care of yourself, how you condition, how you pace your team, during the course of the year for a race," Baker said. "You watch horse racing or a marathon. Very rarely does the team that gets way out in front win. In baseball, if you run out of gas, you're not going to get it back until mid to late October. You start the season with only so much energy, gasoline. And you've got to be a little bit lucky, too.

"We all have a design how we want to run this race. It's whether it comes to fruition or not. So far, it's worked. Not many people are paying attention to us. That's good."

People will have to pay more attention to the Reds as the stretch drive arrives and they remain in position to qualify for the postseason. Win, place or show, this should be a club headed for the postseason.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for

Cincinnati Reds, Tony Cingrani, Devin Mesoraco