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Reds have work to do to ensure best baseball is ahead

Healthier than it's been all season, Cincinnati needs late push to defend Central title

MILWAUKEE -- Dusty Baker remains firmly convinced that for the 2013 Cincinnati Reds, the best baseball is still ahead.

"We haven't played the top of our game yet," the manager said Saturday.

Without doing so, the Reds still have a five-game lead over Arizona for the second Wild Card spot in the National League. They are involved in a difficult division race in the NL Central with Pittsburgh and St. Louis, trailing the Pirates by 3 1/2 games and the Cardinals by 1 1/2 games after Saturday's 2-0 loss to the Brewers.

The Reds could continue to play at their current pace and qualify for the postseason. But to win the division, they're going to have to pick up that pace.

"I don't think it's a matter of sustaining," Baker said. "I think it's a matter of playing better. We haven't played the top of our game yet. We haven't. We pitched sometimes. We've hit sometimes. We've had poor decisions in baserunning sometimes. Sometimes it's our starters, sometimes it's our bullpen. We have plenty of runners on base. We just need somebody to consistently drive them in.

"We haven't had it all together. I think we're starting to feel it. We got to 15 [games] over .500 and we've been kind of treading water ever since. We got down to 10, but we've never been below 10. Until the last few days of this [recent five-game] winning streak, we never went above 15. What were we up to, 17? That's the furthest we've been up. I'd like to take it to 20, sustain there for a little while, then take it up some more."

The Reds appeared to be headed in that direction, but the last two nights represented a detour. They had won five in a row and nine out of 11, and were receiving superb pitching. Then they suffered two tough losses to the Brewers. The Reds lost, 7-6, Friday night, when closer Aroldis Chapman gave up a two-run, walk-off homer to Jonathan Lucroy. The Reds lost Saturday night in a less dramatic, but perhaps more frustrating game. They were unable to get anything going against Milwaukee starter Yovani Gallardo, who was coming off the disabled list after a hamstring injury.

This is not, on paper, a dramatically different Reds team from the one that won the NL Central with a 97-65 record last season, nine games better than their nearest competitors.

But this year's Cincinnati team has been hit with injuries to key personnel. The No. 1 starter, Johnny Cueto, has been on the disabled list three times and has made only nine starts. Sean Marshall, one of the leading left-handed setup men in the game, has made only 11 appearances.

The Reds did recently get back hard-throwing setup man Jonathan Broxton from an elbow injury. Broxton gives the Reds another viable late-inning option. And outfielder Ryan Ludwick, out since Opening Day after surgery for a torn labrum in his left shoulder, returned Monday. Ludwick has been a reliable run producer. He had been missed.

"I couldn't stand looking at the stat sheet, when Ludwick had one at-bat while everybody else had 350," Baker said.

So the Reds are not at full health, but they are healthier than they have been in some time. Now for reaching that higher level, that best baseball of the season that Baker was talking about.

"I can't help but believe it, because we haven't played it," Baker said with a small smile. "Everybody says, 'You're an optimist.' Yeah, but you name me a team that doesn't really have a hot streak during the course of a year. Every team, no matter how good or how bad, has one. And you hope it's toward the end.

"We're not going away, that's for sure. But no, I'm not comfortable or satisfied or any of those terms. We want to finish as high as we can finish, and we've got a quarter of the season left."

There is plenty of time for the Reds to play their best baseball of the season for a nice, sustainable, important period of time. If they do that, another division title is within their grasp. But they still have to cover the distance between believing that could happen and making it happen.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for
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