CINCINNATI -- The heat was firmly on the Reds this week. And, quite simply, they wilted -- not from the August weather -- but rather the Cardinals and a very bright spotlight on a series that everyone in and around baseball was watching. The new-to-contending-this-late Reds had no answer for a Cardinals club that knows plenty about what it takes to go the distance. Cincinnati was swept in three games at home and saw its two-game lead over St. Louis buckle like a house over a sinkhole, becoming a one-game deficit. "The Cardinals played us tough. They're a good team," Reds left fielder Jonny Gomes said. "They've got some good scouting reports about guys' weaknesses. I thought we've been playing some great baseball until the last [three] days."
For the past three months, it's been either the Reds or the Cardinals at the top of the NL Central. While they've frequently traded places, this week showed that the race is still St. Louis' to lose. The Reds will have to hope Brandon Phillips' trashing of the Cardinals on Monday, which led to a benches-clearing incident Tuesday, wasn't his infamous last words. Phillips' rant brought unwanted added intensity to the rivalry for the Reds and it was clear they were pressing during the series as a result. Phillips didn't back up the talk -- going 2-for-14 the last three games -- and now has to answer to his own clubhouse. The front office was not pleased, and many of the players who have handled themselves professionally all season likely weren't either. So, where do the Reds go from here? Was this the turning point of the season, where it all goes south? Will teammates turn on Phillips if it does? Or will they pick themselves up after a stunning knockdown, move forward and engage the battle once more? The best news is that NL Central race isn't decided on Aug. 12. "It's a long way's from over," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "This series doesn't imply that it's over for us. It's really starting. We have to go back to work again, like we've done all year long." There are 47 games remaining in the season, including 18 more before the Reds can get one final crack at facing the Cardinals again for a series over Labor Day weekend at Busch Stadium. Based on opponents' win percentages, the Reds came into the second half with the easiest remaining schedule, while the Cardinals had the second-easiest. However, the Reds also have a pair of three-city trips remaining and have to twice venture out to the West Coast, where they historically struggle. A big trip to Arizona, Los Angeles and San Francisco looms next week. The Cardinals have no remaining West Coast trips. "We got here by winning series and playing good baseball," Reds third baseman Scott Rolen said. "They swept us because they played better baseball than we did. I don't think we played very well as a team during the series. But we play them one more time. That's not going to tell the tale either. We have to keep playing, trying to win series." The Reds have been a resilient group all season and have done a fine job of not letting bad series spill over and become long losing streaks. They've lost five in a row just once this year, and it was back in early April. Before the sweep, they had dropped just one of the previous 13 series. Until this week, the Reds' rotation had been turning in mostly great starts, but now it could face some upheaval. Johnny Cueto, who is 11-3 this season, was issued a seven-game suspension for his role during Tuesday's benches-clearing skirmish with St. Louis. Rookie Mike Leake has struggled lately and could be a candidate to come out of the rotation as he nears his innings limit. The staff must find space for returning pitchers on the disabled list like Homer Bailey, who could be back as soon as this weekend, and Aaron Harang, who has at least one rehab start remaining on his docket. Bailey could be moved to the bullpen if he doesn't replace Leake. Travis Wood should be back from the Minors in a few days after a temporary demotion. And the most intriguing pitching question left is regarding the arrival date of Cuban lefty Aroldis Chapman, who has taken well to being a reliever at Triple-A Louisville. He's been deemed ready, and now it's a question of when. Now 5-10 against the Cardinals this season, the lost series underscored to the Reds that they have no match on their staff for the two-headed pitching-ace tandem of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. The duo dominated on Monday and Wednesday, respectively. The Cardinals also have the best player in the game -- Albert Pujols -- and a strong slugger in Matt Holliday. Cincinnati counters with a usually productive lineup that has MVP candidate Joey Votto, but key hitters like Rolen (no RBIs this month) and Gomes have tailed off from the first half. "Based on what the Reds have proven to get here, they'll handle it and they'll keep playing," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "They've got a lot of plusses, which means they're a good club. Sometimes it happens to us. You just tip your cap. Carp, Wainwright, and Jaime [Garcia] was good enough."