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Reds in thick of race despite injuries

Reds in thick of race despite injuries

CINCINNATI -- The Reds have had enough negative things happen in the first half that could keep a pessimist's pity party buzzing well into the wee hours.

2009 Midterm Report

But it's the bottom line that counts and right now it says Cincinnati is still contending in a wide open, and very winnable, National League Central race. In a division where the gap between first place and fifth place is narrow, the Reds are a season-high three games below .500 at 42-45 while being five games out of first place.

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This is despite having an offense that ranks near the bottom on the NL and injuries that have ransacked manager Dusty Baker's roster. It's been the pitching staff that's kept the Reds going.

The regular starting eight have been together for just 10 games the entire first half. Baker has used dozens of different lineup in an effort to find the right combination to win that night's game.

No one was missed more than first baseman and top hitter Joey Votto, who spent nearly on the month on the disabled list with a stress-related issue that was later revealed to be depression. Third baseman Edwin Encarnacion recently returned from a 58-game stay on the DL with a fractured wrist. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez has been out for nearly a month after he had elbow surgery.

Second baseman Brandon Phillips has been spared the DL, but had to play through a hairline fracture in his right thumb. And Edinson Volquez, last year's 17-game winner and All-Star, has pitched just one inning since May 16 because of back spasms and later, elbow tendinitis. He is still facing a lengthy rehab before he can return.

And on Saturday came the latest batch of bad news -- right fielder Jay Bruce suffered a fractured right wrist when his glove jammed into the grass while making a diving catch against the Mets.

The good news is there are five teams bunched together in the NL Central race, and no one has made the move to separate. For the Reds to be that team, they'll need to get healthy and find a way to capitalize with runners in scoring position.

"We're sort of scratching and clawing, fighting and mixing and matching with what we have," Baker said. "We're in a position where you can make a move."

Club MVP: It has to be Votto, who has been the team's most clutch hitter. His value was underscored during his 21-game DL stint. Before he left the club, the Reds were 26-21 with a .257 team average and averaged 4.57 runs per game. While he was out, they went 8-13, batted .217 as a team and averaged 3.38 runs per game. Votto immediately resumed hitting after his activation and that can only help the club's offensive issues.

Call him "Ace": Right-handed pitcher Johnny Cueto has taken it to another level in his second season, showing much better consistency. Before a July 6 debacle at Philadelphia, where he allowed nine runs over a career-low two-thirds of an inning, he was fourth in the NL with a 2.69 ERA.

Greatest strength: The bullpen has ranked among the best in the NL all season. Nick Masset, Arthur Rhodes and David Weathers have commanded the seventh and eighth innings and held leads or kept opponents from extending deficits. The ninth inning has been nearly airtight this season with much improved, and now All-Star closer, Francisco Cordero.

Biggest problem: The Reds are absolutely begging for clutch hitting, especially with a runner on third base and fewer than two outs. Too often, that runner is left stranded as rallies expire. They also lack a catalyst from the leadoff spot as Willy Taveras often slumps and rarely draws walks. Bruce has hit his share of home runs, but his average has hovered just above .200 for the past several weeks.

Biggest surprise: Masset spent Spring Training unsuccessfully vying for the fifth spot in the rotation, and was slated to be a long reliever when the season started. But he quickly emerged as a key setup man in the seventh inning and is poised for a breakout season.

Team needs: The Reds need offense -- not necessarily a robust power-hitting rent-a-player, but an experienced run producer that can be plugged in and complement Votto and Phillips when the team needs a boost.

He said it: "In this division, you've got to hover around .500. I've heard Dusty say, 'You have to separate from .500 to stay in this thing.' We just can't have that swoon of seven or eight in a row or 10 of 12. We've avoided that. It doesn't get any easier after the break. It only gets tougher. We're going to put a run together. We're going to hit and score runs, and we're going to continue to pitch well." -- Weathers

Mark your calendar: Some tough and critical games await the Reds immediately when play resumes. They host the Brewers on July 16-19 before taking a road trip to Los Angeles and Chicago (July 19-26). The next crack at the Cardinals will be at Busch Stadium from Aug. 10-12.

Fearless second half prediction: Like most of the teams in their division, the Reds can hang in there well into late summer and be competitive. But without sign of consistent offensive production, they will be left behind their rivals when the separation begins at the stretch.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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