CHICAGO -- A challenging first month of the schedule that included 20 games in 20 days -- a rarity for April -- shouldn't have the Reds relaxing as much as licking their wounds. It's certainly been a limp and a hobble to Thursday's long-anticipated off-day.
Cincinnati has already placed seven players on the disabled list, and the six still out includes ace Johnny Cueto (lat), cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick (shoulder surgery) and catcher Ryan Hanigan (thumb, oblique). In all of 2012, they had only 11 players go on the DL.
"One thing for sure is you have to go forward and play the games," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "It's easier when you have your frontline guys. It's a lot more challenging when you have your backup guys."
Widely viewed as the preseason favorites of the National League Central, the Reds have been merely keeping afloat in the division. Through 29 games, they are 15-14 and entered Thursday in fourth place, but they are only two games out of first place.
Peel back some layers, and one game over .500 doesn't look as underwhelming as it normally might.
Through the first 29 games of the 2012 season, the Reds were 15-14, exactly the same spot in which they find themselves right now. Of course, they went on to win 97 games and the division.
In the first month of this season, the Reds have played the first-place Cardinals twice, the defending NL East champion Nationals twice, the expected American League West favorite Angels and a frequent hard-to-beat nemesis in the Phillies.
While they are a league-best 12-4 at home, including a recent 8-2 homestand, the Reds are a league-worst 3-10 on the road. The current road trip is off to a 2-5 start, with three more games remaining.
The hitting has yet to dazzle, as evidenced by 13 games where they've scored two runs or fewer. Reds batters have the second-most strikeouts in the NL with 232.
"We haven't played even close to our best baseball yet, and we're still right there," Reds right fielder Jay Bruce said. "We'll take this in stride, continue to go and ... like Dusty says, we'll take what we can get."
Bruce is one of several key players not off to compelling starts. Even though he is batting .261, he has only one home run and an NL-most 41 strikeouts.
Joey Votto is batting .292 with 27 walks to lead the Majors, but he has just four homers and 11 RBIs. Todd Frazier has six homers and 19 RBIs, but he is batting .232. Hanigan was batting all of .079 before going on the DL on April 21, and Ludwick's replacement in left field, Chris Heisey, was batting only .173 when he went on the DL Monday with a hamstring injury.
On the bright side, new leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo has been even more than advertised with a .324 average and .462 on-base percentage. He has not reached base in only two of his 28 games played, and he has already been hit by 10 pitches -- a club record for one month.
There is also Brandon Phillips, who took over the cleanup spot from Ludwick after the left fielder's Opening Day injury, and leads the team with 26 RBIs while hitting five homers.
Imagine where the Reds would be without pitching. The respected rotation, which has the Majors' second-best ERA (although nearly a run behind the leading Cardinals), has been everything that was expected, and more, even without Cueto.
On April 13 at Pittsburgh, Cueto strained his right lat muscle. Mat Latos has become a de facto ace with a 1.83 ERA in six starts -- all quality outings. Homer Bailey has a 3.38 ERA and 35 strikeouts. Bronson Arroyo has had five strong starts out of six, including just 78 pitches in seven innings for a 2-1 loss on Tuesday at St. Louis. Rookie lefty Tony Cingrani, Cueto's replacement, has been dominant with a 1.50 ERA, four walks and 28 strikeouts in three starts totaling 18 innings.
"We've been fortunate that starters have done a really good job in the absence of Johnny," Reds pitching coach Bryan Price said. "Not that we haven't relied on them in the past. All of those guys are quality starters. But when your No. 1 guy goes down, the amount of consistency you get from the other guys is pretty important. To a man, I've been really impressed with how these guys have pitched since Johnny has been hurt."
The schedule only lightens a little bit for May as the next homestand opens with three games against the NL East-leading Braves. But there are also series against the struggling Cubs, which begins Friday at Wrigley Field, as well as the Marlins, Mets and Indians.
"With the injuries and the schedule we've had, I think we've had as tough a schedule as anybody in the game," Arroyo said. "I'm definitely looking forward to getting into some other ballparks and seeing if we can build on the plus-.500 record. It wasn't that many years ago that if we went 15- in a month, that we'd be real happy with that. To feel like we're not clicking completely, I think it says this ballclub has more talent here than we've had in a long time."