John Clay

John Clay: Reds showing signs they can challenge Cards

A little more than a month into the Major League Baseball season, we have a bit of separation in the National League Central.

The division is going to be what we thought it would be: a two-team race.

St. Louis vs. Cincinnati.

Milwaukee has been decimated by injuries. Chicago is in rebuilding mode. Pittsburgh is, well, Pittsburgh. Houston has shown surprising early promise, but the young Astros aren't likely to stick around for the long haul.

Meanwhile, Joey Votto's double drove in Drew Stubbs in the ninth inning to give the Reds the lead in what had been a terrific pitching duel Wednesday afternoon, and the Reds held on for a 2-1 win at Milwaukee to take the series 2-1.

The Reds have now won five straight three-game series and split a two-game series with Chicago.

Returning to Cincinnati for a short three-game home stand with the East-leading Washington Nationals that starts Friday, the Reds (16-14) join the Cards (19-11 heading into Wednesday night) as the only two teams in the division with winning records.

St. Louis has been St. Louis. No Albert Pujols. No Tony La Russa. No Dave Duncan. No problem.

After an opening-game win at Miami, the defending World Champs played 27 straight games against NL Central opponents. They won 16.

Going into Wednesday night's game at Arizona, terrific off-season pickup Carlos Beltran had hit 10 home runs with 26 RBI, tied for the team lead with last year's World Series MVP, David Freese.

On the pitching side, former Ole Miss star Lance Lynn is 6-0 with a 1.40 ERA. Jake Westbrook is 4-2 with a 1.76 ERA. Former Reds starter Kyle Lohse is 4-1 with a 2.11 ERA. Overall, St. Louis' ERA was a sparking 3.11, second in the NL behind Washington.

Compare that to what the Reds have done thus far.

Scott Rolen is hitting .182

Left field has been a problem. Ryan Ludwick is batting just .176. Chris Heisey is batting .215.

Brandon Phillips has been bothered by a sore hamstring, though his average is starting to rise again, now up to .253. He knocked in the second run in the top of the ninth against Milwaukee on Wednesday.

In the starting rotation, newcomer Mat Latos suffered through his usual April struggle.

Acquired from San Diego for four players over the winter, Latos was 1-2 with a 5.96 ERA through his first five starts before pitching six shutout innings at Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Mike Leake, who won 12 games last year, is 0-4 with a 5.97 ERA.

The Reds lost their expected closer when Ryan Madson underwent elbow surgery. Sean Marshall, expected to be the set-up man, had to take over the closer role. Fellow relievers Bill Bray and Nick Masset are both on the DL.

And yet, Cincinnati has managed to pull itself back above water.

Johnny Cueto might be the best starter in the league. After pitching seven shutout innings Wednesday, his ERA is 1.12.

Aroldis Chapman has been nasty. The Cuban Missile has allowed just five hits and not a single run in 152⁄3 innings. He has struck out 27, while walking just four.

Likewise, reliever Logan Ondrusek has not given up a run all season. He recorded the final out Wednesday to pick up his first career major-league save.

Jay Bruce has carried the team offensively. The right fielder, still just 25 years old, has 10 homers and 23 RBI. Zack Cozart appears to be the long-term answer at shortstop.

Votto is hitting .291, good by most standards, but then Votto is not like most players. He can do better, and will.

As a team, the Reds already are doing better. They've won 12 of their last 18. They're starting to put some space between themselves and the other contenders in the division.

Now they can set their sights squarely on St. Louis.

Should be a fun summer.