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It's an important time for Reds

Sandwiched between Cards and Bucs, Cincinnati facing stretch against winning teams @TracyRingolsby

CINCINNATI -- The Reds have won two of the last three National League Central titles.

They had their winningest season in 36 years in 2012.

And during the offseason they addressed their one glaring void at the top of the lineup.

So are they slam dunks to win again?

Well, favorites, maybe, but not slam dunks. Not by any means. Not in the NL Central.

Think about it.

The Reds went into Wednesday night with a 36-23 record -- four games better than at this point last season and holding a share of the second-most wins of any team in the big leagues -- but they found themselves in second place in the NL Central, 2 1/2 games behind the Cardinals, the only team with more wins than the Reds.

And they were just a game ahead of the Pirates.

"Very happy," manager Dusty Baker said when asked how he felt about the Reds' record. "You'd like to think [at 36-23] you'd be in first place.''

But they aren't. Fact is, they have been in first place only 12 days this season.

Not that Baker's complaining.

"Iron sharpens iron," he said. "What you know about this division is you can't let anyone run off and hide."

The Reds certainly made an effort to put themselves in position to run off and hide with the offseason three-team deal that brought center fielder Shin-Soo Choo from Cleveland, upgrading the defense and giving the Reds a bona fide leadoff hitter.

A year ago, Reds leadoff hitters combined for a .254 on-base percentage, which ranked last in the Major Leagues. This year? Choo's .438 on-base percentage leads all leadoff hitters, and among all Major League players ranks behind only teammate Joey Votto (.451) and Detroit's Miguel Cabrera (.445).

Baker knew better than to get too far ahead of himself in terms of expectations. He figured the NL Central would be a battle.

A Pittsburgh team that is two decades removed from its most recent winning season and has suffered second-half meltdowns the past two years after making contention noises in the first half made major additions at last year's Trade Deadline by acquiring left-hander Wandy Rodriguez from Houston and outfielder Travis Snider from Toronto.

In the offseason they went a step further, signing catcher Russell Martin to a two-year, $17 million deal, sending former closer Joel Hanrahan to Boston for a package that included right-handed reliever Mark Melancon, and taking a gamble that lefty Francisco Liriano could bounce back from two sub-par seasons.

Presto. Though he left Wednesday's start against the Braves after recording only one out because of tightness in his left forearm, Rodriguez has been the anchor of the Pirates rotation, carrying a 6-3 record and 3.47 ERA into the start. Melancon has been the ideal setup man (1.19 ERA) for journeyman-turned-closer Jason Grill (22-for-22 in saves). Liriano (3-2, 2.17 in five starts) has provided an in-season boost. And Snider has taken over the right-field job.

"They have something to prove," said Baker.

And then there is St. Louis, an NL Wild Card last year that was knocked off in the NL Championship Series by eventual World Series champion San Francisco.

The thing about the Cardinals, Baker said, is that people are acting surprised at the way the Cardinals have ignored the loss two winters ago of Albert Pujols and last past winter of their most consistent starting pitcher of 2012, Kyle Lohse, to free agency.

"I was surprised that people were saying the Cardinals weren't good when the season started. I couldn't buy that one," Baker said. "They knew what they had [in terms of young pitchers ready to step into the rotation].

They weren't talking about it or bragging about it, but you don't let guys like Lohse go unless you've got somebody coming. And it helps if you have Yadier Molina leading them through the minefield that's out there."

But then the Reds aren't too shabby, either.

They have a balanced and productive lineup featuring Choo at the top and Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce in the middle. They have a pitching staff that ranks second in the NL in ERA (3.19), albeit it's the Cardinals (3.02) who are setting the pace. And the Reds have an overpowering final word in closer Aroldis Chapman, whose 46 strikeouts in 26 innings underscore how dominating he is.

They also have a major test that will tell them just how good they are.

The Reds are 11-7 against teams with winning records this season, 25-6 against the rest.

Only seven of their next 20 games are against sub-.500 teams.

"It's an opportunity, said Baker.

It's up to the Reds to take advantage of that opportunity.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for

Cincinnati Reds