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Reds taking hard road, but destination within reach

Battle-tested club has more to overcome, but counting on proven resiliency @castrovince

CINCINNATI -- The Reds played a game here Wednesday night, beneath the glow of a full moon, that was entirely more arduous than it needed to be.

They scored seven runs before their opponent, the D-backs, notched a single hit, and yet they still found themselves clinging to every precious out at the end. Aroldis Chapman had to record the final six of those outs and, thanks to a double-switch that wasn't, had to go to bat for the first time in his career. The offense could not rest on the laurels of the battering it bestowed upon Brandon McCarthy but instead had to keep piling on in the eighth.

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The nearly four-hour exercise was about as exhausting to watch as it was to play.

"That," manager Dusty Baker said afterward, "was the epitome of a full moon."

But hey, when the 10-7 win was over, the Reds had held their ground against a fellow Wild Card competitor and gained a game on the first-place Pirates in the National League Central.

And in a year in which pretty much everything has been a little bit more difficult than expected, why should this particular game be any different?

It might get more difficult still for the Reds. Tony Cingrani, who has been such a boon to the rotation while staff ace Johnny Cueto waits out his third disabled list stint of the season, left Tuesday's start with a strained lower back, an injury he had been hiding for a couple weeks. Though the news on Cingriani's condition Wednesday was encouraging, the Reds still weren't confirming if he'll make his next start, and they'll freely admit they don't have any obvious options to replace him if he doesn't.

Cueto, meanwhile, played catch for the first time since straining his lat on June 28, which was good news, but the Reds remain unsure if he'll be able to help them in September or, with the Minor League season winding down, if they'll be able to adequately stretch him back out as a starter.

And then, in the midst of Wednesday's madness, came the continuation of the injury issues affecting setup man Jonathan Broxton. Fresh back from an elbow injury, Broxton felt a twinge near that area that will assuredly send him right back to the DL, and so more stress is placed on a Reds bullpen that had seemingly recovered from its early-season struggles.

All of the above qualifies as concern as the Reds look to leapfrog the Buccos and the Cards to repeat as NL Central champs. But their resilience on this particular night is a quality they've shown often this season, so it's difficult to doubt them.

Indeed, the Reds still have plenty of realistic reasons to look beyond the Wild Card and dream on that division title that everybody predicted them to possess so many months ago.

Remember those days, when the Reds were the obvious favorite for that NL Central honor? Gosh, that seems such a long time ago. Before Ryan Ludwick dislocated his shoulder on Opening Day. Before Cueto not once, not twice, but thrice went to the DL. Before the Pirates became arguably the best story in baseball. Before the Cardinals collectively decided to hit something like .736 with runners in scoring position (or thereabouts).

Yes, it's been a long time since we viewed the Reds from the first-place prism. They last sniffed that standing on April 22, and, for all we know, they might not sniff it again.

Even on the difficult nights, you get the feeling we might just be watching the roots of a run for the Redlegs. They've won 11 of their last 15, and they'll play 21 of their remaining 35 games here in the comforts of Great American Ball Park. Their starters have posted a 2.41 ERA over the last 13 games, and the quality of Ludwick's at-bats has been steadily improving since his return from the DL earlier this month, a potentially big addition to a Reds lineup that has sorely missed his right-handed thump.

It's not all wine and roses for the Reds these days, as the particulars of this game proved. And even if Cingrani makes his next start, there will be concern over whether the rookie can handle the innings increase and the pressure of the postseason chase.

But the Reds were favorites going into the season for a reason, and, despite all the difficulty they've endured, they've hung tough in a surprisingly brutal division battle for a reason, too. Next week, they'll begin a stretch of seven games in 10 days against the Cards -- a team they've beaten just four times in 12 meetings -- and they hope they'll finally be facing that foe at something resembling full strength.

"We haven't had a lot of success against St. Louis," Joey Votto said, "but that's a small number of games to make an evaluation on how we play against one another. We could sweep two series and everybody would say we have the edge. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Cardinals, the way they've played, the way their organization is made up and the way they compete. And Pittsburgh is starting to turn into something like that. Fantastic pitching, and they seem to have an endless supply of it."

There is an endless supply of intrigue in the Central this season, but the Reds have spent longer than they'd like looking up at the Pirates and Cards. They were 6 1/2 back of first -- their largest such deficit of the season -- as recently as Aug. 7. They'll awake Thursday within 2 1/2 games of the lead, and, with home-and-homes against both clubs in the final weeks, they'll have plenty of opportunity to finish first.

If they don't, Baker isn't quite as dismissive of the specter of the Wild Card play-in as some.

"Once you're in, you've got a chance," he said. "Weren't the Cardinals in a one-game playoff last year? And they nearly went to the World Series. You just don't know. Washington was one strike away from going to the next level. We were one game away from the next level. San Francisco had four or five elimination games. You hope for the best record and home-field advantage and all these things, but sometimes it doesn't matter. Sometimes the teams that have to go the furthest and the toughest [are better for it]."

The Reds have had it tough at times this year. Even in victory Wednesday, the going was tough. But if that's what it takes to get to where they want to go, well, bring on the next full moon.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

Cincinnati Reds, Jonathan Broxton, Aroldis Chapman, Tony Cingrani, Johnny Cueto, Ryan Ludwick, Joey Votto