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Reds still in playoff picture, looking for hot streak

Cincy holds five-game lead on second NL Wild Card despite injuries, offensive woes

CINCINNATI -- It could be a debate without true consensus among Reds fans.

Are the Reds fortunate to be where they are in the National League Central race at the All-Star break? Or are they underachieving?

Either way, there is no question that the defense of its division title has been anything but easy for a Cincinnati team that was strongly favored to repeat. A 53-42 record has the club five games out of first place -- trailing the Cardinals and Pirates.

"We need to stay nipping at their heels and let them know we're here," Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo said. "If not, it gets a little bit easier for them to go into their ballgames and kind of cruise."

Both St. Louis and Pittsburgh have had extremely hot stretches in the first half. The Reds? Not so much.

"I believe we've played really well and haven't played our best baseball most of the year," Reds right fielder Jay Bruce said. "Most of the time, it takes your best baseball to win the division. These are very good teams. You can't worry about what they're doing. You just focus on what you're doing. I know that sounds cliché … but that's the bottom line."

Injuries have been a big issue throughout the first half. It started on Opening Day, when left fielder, cleanup hitter and clubhouse leader Ryan Ludwick injured his right shoulder, requiring surgery. Ludwick isn't due to return until sometime in August.

Later in April, Ludwick's replacement, Chris Heisey, missed almost two months on the disabled list with a strained right hamstring. On the pitching staff, ace Johnny Cueto is on the DL for the third time already in 2013 because of a strained right lat muscle behind his shoulder. Both eighth-inning setup men -- lefty Sean Marshall (shoulder) and right-hander Jonathan Broxton (elbow) -- are enduring long stretches of time on the DL. Catcher Ryan Hanigan has missed time with a multitude of injuries. The club went 12-15 in June for its first sub-.500 month since September 2011, and headed into the break 7-6 in July, with four losses coming with two runs or less scored.

Yet, while the Reds aren't thriving, they are still standing. They trail in the division race, but remain five games up for the NL's second Wild Card spot.

First-half awards
MVP: Brandon Phillips Moved to the cleanup spot the game after Opening Day, Phillips is one of the league's leaders in RBIs and hitting with runners in scoring position. Meanwhile, his defensive prowess continues to marvel.
Cy Young: Mike Leake From a tenuous beginning as the fifth starter, Leake has been the rotation's most consistent pitcher. In his last 11 starts, he has a 1.79 ERA.
Rookie: Derrick Robinson A non-roster outfielder at Spring Training, Robinson has capably stepped in and impressed the club as Reds left fielders went down because of injuries.
Top reliever: Sam LeCure As the Reds' bullpen was hit by injuries, LeCure has stepped up with demands in higher profile situations. His ability to get outs in the late innings has been impressive.

"I think that speaks to our ability to overcome adversity and still play [well], winning baseball [games] even when we don't have everything that we left Spring Training with," Bruce said. "That's a huge testament to what we can do moving forward."

Besides the injuries, the offense has failed to ignite on a regular basis. The Reds do rank second behind the Cardinals with a .357 on-base percentage, so they are putting a lot of runners on.

At the same time, clutch hitting is missing.

Cincinnati ranks 14th in the NL with a .194 average with runners in scoring position and two outs. The team's overall .252 average is ranked fifth in the NL.

Without Ludwick, some right-handed hitters haven't picked up the slack. Todd Frazier hasn't supplied the jolt he had from his brilliant rookie season. Zack Cozart hasn't produced as a fill-in at the No. 2 spot after Brandon Phillips moved to the cleanup spot. Phillips was doing the job very well -- his 74 RBIs are tied for second in the NL -- but he's only recently emerged from an extended funk that stemmed from being hit on the forearm by a pitch at the beginning of June.

Pitching has kept the Reds going, and even without Cueto, the rotation has been solid. Cincinnati's 3.40 rotation ERA is tied for third in the NL behind the Cardinals and Pirates. Mike Leake has stepped up from the fifth spot, while Mat Latos has shown ace stuff amid occasional hard luck. Homer Bailey displayed brilliance on July 2 with a no-hitter against the Giants, the second of his career.

And despite missing Broxton and Marshall, the bullpen has largely stayed tough -- led by Sam LeCure, Alfredo Simon and Manny Parra. Aroldis Chapman has had some erratic moments but has seemed to regain his footing. For 10 games from June 29-July 11, Reds relievers combined for a franchise-record 32 2/3 scoreless innings.

"Every season is different," first baseman Joey Votto said. "If we're fortunate enough to get into the playoffs, I think the challenges we're experiencing right now and the tough competition within our division, the tough Interleague Play we've been experiencing, is going to benefit us. It will make us stronger and a better team that realizes its weaknesses, and [it will help us] to figure out a way to compensate or be more aware of them when it comes time."

Players to watch in second half
LF Ryan Ludwick On the DL since Opening Day because of right shoulder surgery, Ludwick hopes to return in August. His bat and leadership have definitely been missed.
RHP Johnny Cueto Three stints on the DL in the first half have frustrated both Cueto and the Reds. There won't be any rushing him back, as his problematic lat muscle must completely heal before he can try again.
OF Billy Hamilton It hasn't been a great season for the Reds' top prospect at Triple-A Louisville. Hamilton's average and on-base percentage aren't impressive, but could his speed be an asset from the bench if a September push is needed?

Last season at around the All-Star break, the Reds made their move. From July 6-Aug. 4, they won 22 of 25 games, including a stretch of 10 straight wins. During that time on July 16, Votto went down with a knee injury. Cincinnati had a 32-16 record until he returned in September.

"I still think there is that feeling that we haven't all gotten hot at the same time," catcher Devin Mesoraco said. "Last year when we went on that 10-game stretch of good ball, we had three or four guys all hot at the same time. You don't want it to come down to where you have to get on a stretch like that. You want to play good ball throughout."

The last two years, the Pirates experienced hot starts and staggering fades. They will face that question again until they show otherwise. The Cardinals won the World Series in 2011, and made the playoffs as a Wild Card in 2012, and they can't be counted out, ever.

What it means for the Reds is a potential fight to the finish line, with no guarantees.

"I don't know what's going to happen over the next few months," Votto said. "But it's important that we play every day. It's important that we don't assume that we're going to make the playoffs. It's important that we try to play and compete like underdogs.

"It would be an awfully humble event if on the last day of the season, we think we're going to coast into the playoffs and get knocked out because of a hot NL East or NL West team. It's important that we keep it tight, assume we're the underdogs and have to come from behind. It's what made us special in 2010, and that's what made us special in 2012."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon.
Read More: Cincinnati Reds, Ryan Ludwick, Johnny Cueto, Aroldis Chapman, Devin Mesoraco, Bronson Arroyo, Jay Bruce, Joey Votto