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Reds primed to break free from NL Central pack

CINCINNATI -- Cosmic circumstances at the beginning of the season seemed to leave the National League Central for the Reds to take and run away with in the first half.

The biggest obstacle from making that happen for the Reds was, in many ways, the Reds.

The Cardinals, already without free-agent defector Albert Pujols, were racked with injuries to key players like slugger Lance Berkman and Chris Carpenter, the rotation ace who is out for the season. The Brewers, already without free-agent defector Prince Fielder, were also hobbled by injuries.

And then there are the Pirates, who have surprised everyone by going into the All-Star break in first place in the division on the strength of fantastic pitching. Cincinnati, which has had trouble separating itself from the pack, is in second place and one game behind Pittsburgh and 1 1/2 games ahead of third-place St. Louis. Not bad, but it could be better.

"We've played OK. We were in first place for about 50 days, and we're still right there," Reds right fielder Jay Bruce said. "We're still in a great position to be there at the end. ... Our pitching has really been the story. Our lineup and offense has been a little inconsistent and sporadic. We have to lock that in. We're a team that's going to hit. We haven't gotten hot yet. We're playing well enough."

Led by the All-Star caliber effort of Johnny Cueto, the Reds' rotation is fifth in the NL with a 3.64 ERA and had quality starts in 10 of 11 games during a 6-5 West Coast road trip to end the first half. Mat Latos and Mike Leake have come on strong of late and Bronson Arroyo is enjoying a bounce-back season despite not getting many wins. The team is 36-17 when it gets a quality start, and for the first time since 1985, every member of the rotation notched at least one complete game before the All-Star break.

The bullpen, despite losing Ryan Madson, Bill Bray and Nick Masset to injuries, has the second-best ERA in the league at 2.77. Aroldis Chapman, who became the closer in May, started the season with 24 straight appearances without allowing an earned run.

First-half awards
MVP: Joey Votto One of the best hitters in baseball, Votto is at, or near, the league leaderboard in hits, walks, doubles, slugging and on-base percentage.
Cy Young: Johnny Cueto Despite being snubbed from All-Star team, has one of the lowest ERAs in the NL at 2.36. Has 10 wins at the break after having nine all of 2011.
Rookie: Zack Cozart Leads National League rookies in multihit games, runs, hits, total bases and extra-base hits.
Top reliever: Aroldis Chapman Before a bump in the road, he began the season with 24 straight appearances and 29 straight innings without an earned run allowed.
Offense is where the Reds are still searching for consistency, they rank 10th in hitting with a .248 average. Joey Votto, batting .348 with a league leading 1.088 on-base-plus slugging percentage and record-tying pace of 35 doubles has been the most dependable, but he needs help.

"We certainly haven't underachieved. That's not the case," Reds manager Dusty Baker said of his club's first half. "Could you improve in some areas? Yeah. We need to get better with runners in scoring position, big time. I think that's No. 1."

Indeed, the Reds are batting .236 with runners in scoring position and only .194 with runners in scoring position and two outs. Take away the contributions of Votto and Brandon Phillips, these numbers become particularly appalling.

In a strong indicator of missing clutch hits and poor situational hitting, the Reds are only 14-16 in one-run games this season, and 3-22 when scoring fewer than three runs.

"Right now, us and one-run games aren't getting along," Phillips said. "We have to do what we can to get people on base and try to drive them in.

"We have to score more runs. One-run games, we have to fix that. I always feel like we have holes in our roster. Once we fix those holes, I feel we can take off in this division. We're working with what we've got. We can still get in first place. We just have to win. We've got to beat teams we're supposed to beat. Let's worry about the Reds instead of what other teams are doing."

Players to watch in second half
Mat Latos After an inconsistent first couple of months, Latos closed the first half strong in his final three starts, which included back-to-back complete games.
Scott Rolen Struggling as a hitter, shoulder and back injuries have kept him off the field. If Rolen doesn't get going at the plate, will Todd Frazier take over at 3B?
Drew Stubbs Closed the first half in a major slump. If he keeps hitting in the second spot, he'll need to get on base more ahead of Joey Votto.
When it comes to these Reds, Baker is pleased overall with the big picture.

"We should be. You always want more," Baker said. "We said we wanted to improve our pitching staff. We hoped our young guys would improve and mature and they have. We wanted to improve our bullpen, which it has. How many teams that on any given day are vying for first place with three rookies [Zack Cozart, Devin Mesoraco and Todd Frazier] in the lineup?"

The Reds have a chance to break from the pack when they start the second half. Of their first 30 games after the All-Star break, 19 come against NL Central foes. And nine of those games will be played at Great American Ball Park, where they are 23-16 this season.

Don't be shocked though if it's a fight to the end to decide the division winner.

"I'm proud of our guys that have clawed and fought," Baker said. "I wish we played a little smarter sometimes. But we will."

Cincinnati Reds, Bronson Arroyo, Bill Bray, Jay Bruce, Aroldis Chapman, Zack Cozart, Johnny Cueto, Todd Frazier, Mat Latos, Ryan Madson, Nick Masset, Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen, Drew Stubbs, Joey Votto