CINCINNATI -- It's only April and the second series of the regular season, but a Reds-Cardinals series always has an extra layer (or two) of intrigue.
Sure, there are many former Cardinals who are employed by the Reds -- including third baseman Scott Rolen and general manager Walt Jocketty. And the rivals have had hard-fought games over the past several seasons. As for 2012, both teams are expected to be front-runners for the National League Central crown, which adds more meaning.
"I feel like the Cardinals are the best team in the division because they won it all last year," said Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips, who was involved in a bench-clearing altercation with Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina in 2010. "They're playing good baseball like they always do. I feel they're the team to beat. I feel we're going to give many teams a run for their money."
Can an early series like this have as much meaning as one played in August or September?
"We'll see," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "We know the Cardinals are here. And we've got them next week, too, [in St. Louis]."
Certainly, there is a big difference to the 2012 edition of the Cardinals. Superstar Albert Pujols defected to the Angels as a free agent, manager Tony La Russa retired and pitching coach Dave Duncan left for personal reasons.
The Reds don't expect to see a weaker St. Louis club in transition, however.
"Everyone can say what they want about losing Albert and losing Tony," Reds right fielder Jay Bruce said. "They're still going to be a premier team in this league. I think those guys are good enough ballplayers over there to where the [loss of a] manager isn't going to take too much of a toll on how they play. It's not going to be easy. They're not going to lay down for us."
"I feel like they'll be much more hungry, because they're out to prove that two people can't really win a championship," Phillips said. "[Pujols and La Russa] were two very important aspects to that team, but you have to realize there are other guys on the team that are putting food on the table, also."