ST. LOUIS -- Another lost series to the Cardinals is not a new experience for the Reds, especially at Busch Stadium. It's become very familiar, especially this season.
With one month to go in 2013 to determine Cincinnati's postseason fate, there are two important questions regarding the Reds on Thursday's off-day. How will Cincinnati respond to losing this series? And what exactly might the Reds do the rest of the way? Based on the nearly five months of grinding their gears with sometimes frustrating up-and-down play, it's almost too hard to tell.
"If we're going to get hot, we need to do it now," pitcher Homer Bailey said. "There is no doubt. Historically when you look at teams that have gone deep in the playoffs or won World Series, they just got hot at the right time. I think most people in here would probably agree with me in saying we haven't gotten hot yet. The panic button, we don't need to hit it just yet. It's coming up."
Cincinnati -- now 75-59 and third in the National League Central -- came to St. Louis 2 1/2 games out of first place and left town 3 1/2 behind the first-place Cards. It avoided leaving with a severe limp in taking a 10-0 win in the finale on Wednesday, but the losses in the first two games hurt more than usual in how poorly the games were played.
There were mental mistakes, like Joey Votto forgetting how many outs there were. There were pitching mistakes, like J.J. Hoover leaving a first-pitch fastball over the plate for Allen Craig to hit a grand slam. Both of those were in the seventh inning in Monday's 8-6 loss. There were mistakes on the bases in the 6-1 loss Tuesday, like Zack Cozart having his head down and running into the third out at third base, where Bruce was already standing. There were failures to move runners, a mistake in fielding a bunt and other issues.
"You've got to pitch and play better fundamental baseball, and [you] can't make a whole bunch of mistakes against a good club," manager Dusty Baker said. "We've been doing, probably, none of the above."
Votto believes these losses, and the manner in which they occurred, do not define his team.
"We're a good baserunning team. We're a good defensive team. We're a good pitching team," Votto said. "Those are three qualities we have more than most teams. One stretch of bad play in one game doesn't paint us. And if it does, shame on the artist. I'm not terribly concerned. [Tuesday's] failure was another chance to improve. I'm very confident it helped us become a better team. Everyone is concerned with the record and chasing this and chasing that. Just play. It will take care of itself. Just play the ballgames. Play them out."
With 28 games remaining, the Reds will have their chance to prove Votto right against the very teams they are pursuing. Following the end of the road trip this weekend at Colorado, the Cardinals come to Great American Ball Park for a four-game series. Of the final nine games in the regular season, six will be played against the second-place Pirates.
So far, Cincinnati is 5-10 this season against St. Louis and 6-7 against Pittsburgh. Following the next Cards series, the NL West-leading Dodgers come in for three games.
The odds remain strong that the Reds will secure, at minimum, the second NL Wild Card spot. Cincinnati is six games ahead of Arizona, seven ahead of Washington. But the Wild Card Game is a one-game crapshoot and offers little comfort compared to the advantages of a division win.
"This last month is going to be big, especially with these teams that we're playing so much and teams like the Nationals and Diamondbacks who are, on paper, a little ways behind us," Bailey said. "You better keep going forward or you will get caught."
To win the NL Central for the third time in four years, Cincinnati would not only have to eliminate many of the mistakes, the club will have to start capitalizing on the gaffes of its opponents. Bruce felt that could be achieved over the final month.
"I believe in everyone here," Bruce said. "I believe in the guys on the team. The pitching staff has really done great all year. We've played really well all year. … We're not playing poorly over a full season. That's what people tend to lose sight of. The sample sizes are from here to here or here to there, rather than just wait. And not wait in the sense of just sit back and see what happens, but let's just play baseball. That's why you play 162 games."
The last time the Reds were beaten soundly and dropped two of three to the Cardinals earlier this month, they banged out wins in eight of the next nine games to stay close in the race after a seven-game deficit on Aug. 8. But before and after taking three of four at home from the D-backs, Cincinnati dropped a pair of three-game series to the struggling Brewers.
"There are plenty of games left. There is so much time left and plenty of things can happen," Votto said. "It's a genuine challenge. It asks us to look at our weaknesses and emphasize our strengths, and be aware of the mistakes we're making and adjust from there. To me, when you get to face those two teams 30-40 times in a year, I think it's a very fortunate thing. It will benefit us in the future, and certainly benefit us in September."
There are several strengths in the Reds' favor. Led by Votto and Shin-Soo Choo, Cincinnati ranks third in the NL in on-base percentage behind St. Louis and the Dodgers. The Reds are also third in runs scored and fifth in home runs, and they have finally gotten Ryan Ludwick back after four months on the disabled list. On the pitching side, the rotation ranks second in ERA behind the Dodgers. The bullpen has generally stepped up in the absences of setup men Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall.
On the other hand, the bullpen has also shown some signs of strain. Manny Parra, the only lefty not named Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen, gave up a run in each of his last three appearances after nearly three air-tight months. Hoover surrendered two grand slams within a week after a stretch of 26 1/3 scoreless innings.
Offensively, that key hit is missing, especially with two outs. The Reds' .204 average with runners in scoring position and two outs sits in 13th in the NL. The shortcomings have not been fatal to this point, but they have made progress much more difficult
"There's absolutely no panic and burning," Bruce said. "We have to play better."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon.