The Reds lost five consecutive games last week, evidently in an effort to give Joey Votto a little ego boost. That's what friends are for, after all. Because as easy as it might have been to expect the National League Central race to tighten up the day Votto's left knee went under the knife, exactly the opposite has occurred. The Reds were hot, winners of six straight, on July 16, the day Votto's knee injury was revealed. They were 50-38, a game ahead of the Pirates and 4 1/2 ahead of the Cardinals. Now? They're even hotter.
Without Votto, whose absence has been extended by a setback that required a second surgical procedure, the Reds have gone 20-8. Their lead in the NL Central is a commanding six games on the second-place Pirates, who have played one game above .500 since the break, and seven games on the Cards, who have been waiting all year to find a stride that may or may not come. The Reds lost those five straight only to win their next four, including Tuesday's 3-0 shutout of the visiting Mets. How many teams could play their best baseball without their best player? Only the kind of team that's shaping up to be a nightmare for its potential October opponents. Let's start with Tuesday's shutout to peer into what's going right for the Reds, sans Votto. Mat Latos pitched seven of those shutout innings, extending what's become a significant stretch of success. Latos was fairly brutal in the season's first half, and the farm-depleting trade general manager Walt Jocketty made to land him -- the deal that initially signaled how aggressive the Reds would be in 2012 -- was beginning to look like a mistake. The Reds had thought they were acquiring an ace-in-the-making, but Latos' 5.20 ERA through 14 starts told another story. It's notable, though, that even through those struggles, Latos' strikeout and walk rates were comparable to his previous two seasons with the Padres. It was his proclivity for serving up the long ball (16 of the first 86 hits he allowed this season were home runs) that was dragging him down. The low point for Latos came June 18, when he served up seven runs in four innings in Cleveland and complained afterward about the Indians stealing signs. "Tell him you don't have to steal signs," one Tribe player told me, "when you're tipping your pitches." Maybe Latos was tipping, or maybe he just needed his homer/fly ball ratio to level off. Whatever the case, he's 5-1 with a 1.83 ERA in the 10 starts since, holding the opposition to a stifling .180 average. He's allowed just one earned run over his past three starts, each of which have gone at least seven innings. So now the Reds -- a team largely built on pitching and defense -- are getting something much closer to the resolute rotation they dreamed up for themselves. Though Tony La Russa didn't acknowledge it at the All-Star Game, Johnny Cueto has been arguably the best pitcher in the NL this season, going 15-6 with a 2.45 ERA. The fact that he's allowed just 0.54 home runs per nine innings in Great American Ball Park is reason enough to have him atop your in-season NL Cy Young Award ballot. That's what impresses most about this Reds starting staff, beyond the fact that it's the only one in baseball to have used just five starters all season. Great American Ball Park has long been established as punitive toward pitchers, so they do their best to miss bats, turning in a 2.92 home strikeout-to-walk ratio that ranks third in the league. And the bullpen? Well, it's simply the best in baseball, and it will be stronger still if Trade Deadline acquisition Jonathan Broxton, who has battled some arm soreness, adjusts to the setup role. We could spend all day talking about how ludicrous Aroldis Chapman's numbers are -- suffice to say he's converted 20 straight save opportunities and hasn't allowed a run since June 24. Good pitching is the backbone of the Reds' success this season, and particularly during this Votto-less stretch. But with both Votto and Scott Rolen ailing, it's a credit to the Reds' system that a rookie like Todd Frazier was ready to step in and assume a major role in the middle of the order. Frazier is firmly in the NL Rookie of the Year Award conversation, and he's improved his stock by posting a .282/.318/.447 slash line since Votto went down. And it's a credit to Jocketty's offseason strategizing that a guy like Ryan Ludwick was plucked out of the free-agent bargain bin after a stock-plunging term played largely at PETCO Park. Ludwick has been instrumental in the Reds' run, batting .344 with a 1.126 OPS in 26 games since Votto was sidelined. Certain characteristics of this Reds club aren't going to change. Jay Bruce, who hit the three-run walk-off to beat the Mets on Tuesday night, will go through streaks and slumps and ultimately finish with around 30 homers and an OPS north of .800. Brandon Phillips will keep getting his hits. On the down side, the leadoff spot, where rookie Zack Cozart has been thrust out of necessity, will continue to be a bit lackluster in the on-base percentage department, and that will hurt the overall production and could be a factor if and when the Reds reach the postseason. All told, though, this is an elite NL unit. "They have a very deep, experienced bench," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said recently. "A tough lineup to deal with, from top to bottom. Speed, power. So they are one of the best teams in baseball, and the hottest." What's telling, though, about this 20-8 stretch is that the Reds haven't had to play completely out of their minds to make it happen. They're averaging 4.57 runs per game without Votto after averaging 4.19 with him. They're giving up 3.61 runs per game after giving up 3.69 in the 88 games previous. Ultimately, the lesson is that the Reds aren't going away, and they'll be even more dangerous when Votto returns, most likely by the end of next week. The question is whether there will even be much of a race by that point.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.