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Matthew Leach

With Cueto back, steadily rolling Reds are even better

With Cueto back, steadily rolling Reds are even better play video for With Cueto back, steadily rolling Reds are even better

NEW YORK -- Quietly, steadily, the Reds roll on. And now they're getting better.

The team with the second-best record and second-best run differential in the National League added an elite starting pitcher to its rotation on Monday night. And though Johnny Cueto didn't look much like the man who was a Cy Young candidate a year ago, on this night it didn't matter. He did enough, and got enough help, for Cincinnati to rack up win No. 27 in 45 tries.

That's a pace for 97 wins for a team that did without its ace for more than a month and is still awaiting the return of one of its most essential bats. The Reds haven't played the most taxing schedule thus far, it's true. But they also haven't been at full strength, and they've motored on just the same.

With Cueto's return, the Reds look a little more like themselves. And that's a team to take very seriously.

"He's kind of our anchor," said outfielder Jay Bruce, whose homer provided the deciding run in Monday's 4-3 win over the Mets. "You hand him the ball, and you can go out there and have him win a game. Tonight he definitely wasn't his best, but really, only one mistake was all he really gave up."

Cueto's absence actually provided reassurance for one area of the Reds that seemed to be a concern. Although their rotation is deep and strong, it wasn't clear what would happen if they needed a sixth starter. Rookie Tony Cingrani thrived in his brief stint with the big club, showing that if another injury strikes the starting five, Cincinnati won't be left hanging.

It's not just the rotation, though, and that's sort of the point. What made the Reds so effective a year ago, what made them such a compelling pick in the preseason this year, is their balance.

The Reds have one of the league's best rotations, but also one of the best offenses. The Reds are second in the NL in runs, largely because they're first in on-base percentage. Shin-Soo Choo has been a revelation, Joey Votto has returned to normal levels of Votto-ness and Bruce is heating up.

They may not continue at this high level, but they've shown they can -- and should -- be a very, very good offense.

"I feel really proud about our team," Cueto said. "I feel proud about the way we have been playing. I thank God I'm back in the rotation, and I feel like I'm here to back up my team and continue the same."

Even the bullpen, which has had its moments of drama, has mostly been very good. The nine relief losses aren't pretty, but five of them came in the first two weeks of the season, and the unit has stabilized since then. Aroldis Chapman is as good as it gets at the back end, and there's an army of able hurlers in front of him.

It's a reasonable assessment that the Reds' current midpack standing in relief ERA is going to get better, not worse, as the season goes on. Relievers can be unpredictable, but the best way to have a good relief corps is to have a lot of good arms, and the Reds have that.

In fact, the Reds' biggest worry may have absolutely nothing to do with their own roster. It's the team in front of them.

The first-place Cardinals have roared through the season's first six weeks, overcoming surprising slow starts by some of their hitters by getting brilliant starting pitching. But St. Louis is down two starters, with Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook on the disabled list. The Reds have a chance to make up some ground in what has been a very competitive NL Central, and now they're a little better poised to do it.

They just need to keep doing what they've been doing.

"I think it all comes down to executing," Bruce said. "I think it's a sign of a good team, a team that has the ability to win a championship, when you're able to not have everyone running on all cylinders and [you can] still go out there and win games, find a way to put some wins up. We've been able to do that."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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