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Reds' division lead anchored with solid defense

Reds' division lead anchored with solid defense

CINCINNATI -- Third baseman Scott Rolen has fielded a baseball and recorded an out 5,473 times in his career.

As impressive as the 37-year-old's glove can be at times, the vast majority of those outs have been routine grounders or popups that are erased from fan's memories as quickly as they happened.

These type of plays may not be the most exciting in baseball, but they often lay the groundwork for contending clubs in a category that is sometimes taken for granted.

"Defense shows up every day," Rolen said. "You don't hit every day. You don't hit home runs every day or doubles or anything else. You go out and play defense every day."

Rolen and the Reds have done just that all year long. Despite their four-error outing Wednesday night in Houston -- the most in any one game this year -- the Reds still lead the National League with a .986 fielding percentage, and they have committed the fewest errors (51) by any NL club this season.

Much of the credit should be chalked up to the solid Cincinnati pitching staff, but the Reds have also surrendered the third-fewest runs (353) in the Majors, no doubt in part because their defense.

Reds manager Dusty Baker advocated his support of the "defense wins championships" mentality.

"That's true," Baker said. "I don't care what sport you're playing."

It's a philosophy the 63-year-old skipper has carried with him for some time throughout his career, and the 2012 campaign is no exception. While powerful pitchers and heavy hitters often steal the headlines with their performances, Baker said it's that kind of defensive presence that makes a team special.

"In our world that we live in today, it's just hitting, hitting, hitting, offense, offense, offense," Baker said. "Defense probably excites you and the crowd and the team more than an offensive play. Our guys, they work on it daily."

The Reds' defensive dominance shouldn't come as too much of a surprise with the number of Gold Gloves sprinkled around Cincinnati. On a normal day in Cincinnati, there could be as many as four Gold Glovers in the infield, with a combined 13 fielding honors among them.

Rolen has eight Gold Glove Awards to his name, second baseman Brandon Phillips has three of his own, and first baseman Joey Votto and pitcher Bronson Arroyo have each chalked up one as well.

While the Reds do have their fair share of web gems this season, Rolen said it isn't the flashy gloves that makes this team special, but rather the solid execution of simple plays that often get overlooked.

"All you see [on TV] are the best plays of the day," Rolen said. "You don't see Zack Cozart making six routine outs in a game. That's what wins games for us. That's what the defense is. The defense isn't the 'once every three weeks' diving play. It's the consistency."

Rolen said playing defense is simply part of his job, and he takes a very straightforward approach to that side of the game.

"If the ball goes on the ground, it's an out," he said. "If the ball goes in the air, it's an out."

It's that mentality and leadership that has helped guide the Reds to the top of the NL Central, setting a precedent of hard-nosed defense along the way.

"I just try to mimic what they do, and it's really been helping me out a lot along the way whatever position I'm at," said rookie Todd Frazier, who has seen action at first, third and left field this season. "Seeing them working at their craft is pretty nice to see, and makes me want to be that kind of guy, too. We've got guys that work tirelessly on their defense."

The efforts have paid off, as the Reds are currently a season-high 18 games above .500 and lead the NL Central by 2 1/2 games over Pittsburgh.

If history holds true, the Reds may be in prime position for a deep postseason push. Since 2000, only three World Series-winning clubs have fielded below .984 for the season, and the other nine champions have finished in the top 10 or better in fielding percentage.

"If you hold the team to no runs, you're going to win," Frazier put it simply.

Aside from 2010's NL Central champions, who fielded a remarkable .988 for the season, the 2012 Reds are on pace to be the best defensive club Cincinnati has had since the 1995 squad made a run to the NL Championship Series.

Even more impressively, the Reds are doing it all with a number of young players making significant contributions. It's not uncommon for Cincinnati to field three rookies in one game, and the Reds could start as many four other players with less than five years of experience on any given day.

Rolen, a 17-year veteran, said defense starts in the middle, pointing to catcher, second base, shortstop and center field as the most crucial spots on the field.

Drew Stubbs, in his fourth year as a Major Leaguer, has played 76 games this season at center, while two rookies, Cozart and Devin Mesoraco, have filled in at shortstop and catcher, respectively, on numerous occasions.

Cozart has started 87 games at short, and he is second on the team in assists with 221, behind only Phillips. That mark is also second best among all rookies, along with his 96 appearances this season.

"That's one of my favorite things, is when I'm constantly out there and you're involved in the game constantly with a lot of ground balls," Cozart said. "It feels good."

Being in first place always feels good, and if the Reds keep it up, more good feelings may be in store.

Mark Clements is an associate reporter for
Read More: Cincinnati Reds, Brandon Phillips, Zack Cozart, Bronson Arroyo, Devin Mesoraco, Todd Frazier, Joey Votto, Scott Rolen, Drew Stubbs