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Reds have chance to shatter Cards' playoff dreams

ST. LOUIS -- The Reds can be both division winners and Wild Card spoilers? That duality is the new reality of the 2012 postseason race.

The luck of the schedule has Cincinnati meeting its division nemesis, the Cardinals, for a three-game regular-season finale of a series that begins Monday. Plenty is at stake.

Before the playoffs, the National League Central champion Reds can also bounce St. Louis from the second Wild Card spot. The Cardinals entered the day with a two-game advantage over the surging Dodgers.

"They're always dangerous," Reds shortstop Zack Cozart said of the Cardinals. "Their lineup, up and down, is pretty potent. They have the pitching to keep them in the game. We're going in there trying to win. Whether that knocks them out or not, it's up to the other team. I wouldn't mind it."

Cincinnati clinched a No. 2 seed, at worst, with a win Sunday vs. the Pirates. The Reds are tied with the Nationals for the best record in baseball, but would lose the tiebreaker because of a 2-5 season record vs. Washington. That means the Reds would need to be a game up on the Nationals when the season ends to get the top seed.

The No. 2 seed would face the No. 3 seeded Giants in the NL Division Series that begins Saturday in San Francisco. The No. 1 seed would face the winner of the one-game Wild Card elimination between the Braves and either the Cardinals or Dodgers.

In the Reds' hands is the chance to wipe out a potential playoff foe. Entering the series, they are 6-6 this season vs. St. Louis, but 8-13 the last three seasons at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals are also the defending World Series champions.

Especially since the 2010 season when a revitalized Reds club won the NL Central over the Cardinals, the two teams have had memorable clashes. Much of the strain could be linked to a rivalry between managers Dusty Baker and former Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa. There has been constant gamesmanship, sniping and outright dislike shown between the clubs, including a bench-clearing scrape between the Reds' Brandon Phillips and Cardinals' Yadier Molina.

This season, there have been no extracurricular issues or fireworks. Baker, who returns to the bench Monday after missing 11 games recovering from a minor stroke and irregular heartbeat, is friends with first-year Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.

The Reds' seeding mystery won't be solved until Tuesday at the earliest, as the Nationals host the Phillies for the final three games of their season. The Cardinals can use some help from the Giants, who finish the season vs. the Dodgers in Los Angeles.

While the myriad matchup and spoiler scenarios can be intriguing for fans and media, Phillips chose to keep it simple.

"I just worry about where we're going to be and who we're going to play in the first round," Phillips said. "All you can do is try to win as much as possible, and not worry about the other teams. Just beat whoever you play. Certain things you can't worry about and control. All you can do is worry about yourself and let history make itself."

Cincinnati Reds, Zack Cozart, Brandon Phillips