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Playoff race begins in earnest as two months remain

Reds welcome second-place Cardinals to Cincinnati to open key final stretch

SAN DIEGO -- Two months is all that's left of the 2013 season. Over the next 53 games in those two months, the Reds can prove the following:

They are either worthy repeating as National League Central champions, able to secure an NL Wild Card spot, or none of the above.

SAN DIEGO -- Two months is all that's left of the 2013 season. Over the next 53 games in those two months, the Reds can prove the following:

They are either worthy repeating as National League Central champions, able to secure an NL Wild Card spot, or none of the above.

"Every game from here on out is super important, no matter who we're playing," Cincinnati pitcher Bronson Arroyo said. "We're six games back. That's no joke. If you get to Sept. 1 and are six games back, it will be almost impossible to catch somebody unless they play terrible."

Entering Thursday's off-day, the Reds are six games behind the first-place Pirates in the NL Central. A chance to move closer to the front was squandered during a five-game losing streak the Reds snapped Wednesday against the Padres. The win gave Cincinnati a chance to catch its breath on an off-day following a 5-6 road trip through San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego which included a doubleheader and a "home" game on the road.

Now, the Reds' pennant chase begins in earnest. Coming to town for three games is a team reeling even worse -- the Cardinals. A week ago, it would have been Cincinnati's chance to take on the Central's first-place team, but St. Louis has been gasping for air during what has been a disastrous road trip to Atlanta and Pittsburgh.

"I looked up there, who would have thought St. Louis would have lost [seven] in a row?" Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "They looked like they were unbeatable."

When the Reds' road trip started, they trailed the Cardinals by five games. Entering Thursday's play, when the Cards wrap up their series against the Bucs, the Reds trail second-place St. Louis by 3 1/2 games. This weekend affords Cincinnati the chance to erase the gap and set its sights on Pittsburgh.

That opportunity became louder Wednesday, when St. Louis placed the NL's best catcher, Yadier Molina, on the disabled list with a knee injury.

"Especially against the teams in our division, obviously the teams that are on top of us, it's our only chance to make some major dents and make some strides," said Arroyo, who pitches Friday against St. Louis. "If we don't beat those guys, they're not going to lose enough games elsewhere for us to catch them.

"It's not May. We're starting to get deep in the season. When you start mapping out the probability from six games back, it's not that easy to catch them."

The Reds, who started the year 34-21, went 26-28 through June and July.

Should the Pirates continue to play well while the Reds are stuck in neutral or, worse, reverse, then the race goes quickly from division contenders to thoughts of a Wild Card berth. Cincinnati holds a four-game lead on the D-backs for the second Wild Card spot.

"If it looks like it becomes insurmountable to win the division, then yeah, you look and see to make sure you can lock up one of those spots so you have a decent opportunity to play that Game 163," Arroyo said. "That's not a fun thought to think about anyway -- one starting pitcher and nine innings to dictate your fate on making it to the playoffs."

Baker, generally an optimist, prefers not to place added meaning on games over the final two-month stretch.

"You start thinking that, then you add more pressure than is necessary," Baker said. "All you can do is play one game at a time. As quickly as you lose ground, you can pick up ground. Look at Oakland last year. They were dead in the water until the last week. You have to play the season out.

"We've still got a long, long way to go. The booties ain't got that tight yet."

Following a 14-13 July where they were at home for only nine games, the Reds play at Great American Ball Park for 31 of their final 53 games. There are still 10 games left against St. Louis and six games left with Pittsburgh. And in the Wild Card picture, four games left against Arizona.

With the exception of three games at Colorado, all of Cincinnati's remaining road trips are in either the Eastern or Central time zones. And 28 games are against teams currently with below-.500 records.

Reds general manager Walt Jocketty wasn't able to swing any deals before Wednesday's non-waiver Trade Deadline. But the club hopes to get left fielder and key right-handed bat Ryan Ludwick back in the next two weeks. Ludwick has been out since injuring his right shoulder on Opening Day.

Relievers Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall, both on the disabled list, are expected to be able to contribute down the stretch, while the team will keep its fingers crossed that injured ace Johnny Cueto can solve his strained lat issues and help, as well.

With or without Ludwick, Cincinnati needs to solve its offense woes. Until securing a 4-1 win Wednesday, the team scored only five runs over 47 innings during its five-game losing streak. When it comes to hitting with runners in scoring position and two outs, they rank 14th out of 15 NL teams.

On the bright side, the pitching has been stellar. The Reds' 2.71 ERA for July trailed only the Dodgers and Rays in the Majors. The downside is it's only taken one or two runs of late to overcome them.

Arroyo, the longest-tenured Reds player and in the final year of his contract, doesn't sense clubhouse anxiety over the team's situation.

"If you look at our win-loss record, it's not bad," Arroyo said. "We're about where you'd think you ought to be or want to be, at this time of year. But there are two teams in our division that have been playing unbelievable. It's making us look like we're not keeping pace. I don't think the discouragement is quite as bad as the past -- from 2006-'09 and '11. Those years, you just weren't playing up to par. We're obviously not playing at their level, but from the won-loss standpoint, we've been pretty good. We have to turn it up another notch to keep up with those guys."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon.

Cincinnati Reds