CINCINNATI -- Obviously, the Reds would prefer to be playing this final month for a playoff berth, but that race left them on the side of the road weeks ago. Now all that's left is trying to win today while planning for tomorrow. "We can still catch a couple of teams," manager Dusty Baker said. "That's what I want to do -- finish as high as you can finish."
By virtue of winning nine of their past 11 games, including a four-game sweep of the Pirates, the fifth-place Reds improved to three games behind the fourth-place Astros in the National League Central. They're 6 1/2 games ahead of Pittsburgh after being in the cellar for one day a couple of weeks ago. "I think we're all playing as a team," starting pitcher Homer Bailey said. "We're all feeding off of one another. I think the team chemistry that's been going on has helped a lot." Bailey is one of a few young players to have emerged recently. He struggled in previous callups, including two stints in the big leagues this season, but is 3-0 with a 1.69 ERA in his past three starts. It's greatly upgraded his chances of being in the 2010 rotation. Shortstop Paul Janish has gotten a chance to play every day since the Aug. 14 trade of Alex Gonzalez. Janish, a defensive wiz who had trouble at the plate, is batting .304 in his past 11 games. The Reds will likely go into the offseason looking around for shortstops, but if Janish keeps it up, he could be in the picture. Only 15 games and 69 plate appearances into his big league career, center fielder Drew Stubbs already has four home runs for the Reds. In 107 games and 472 appearances this season at Triple-A Louisville, Stubbs had three homers. He's batting .271 but .321 over his past 11 games. The Reds are trying to find out if he can play regularly in the Majors. Justin Lehr, a 32-year-old journeyman, has a 4-1 record since he joined the rotation. He doesn't have dazzling stuff, but he's winning. Because of injuries and trades, the Reds didn't have to wait for September callups to flood the roster with players from Triple-A Louisville this season. A total of 14 players on the current roster spent time with the Bats in 2009. That means there are a lot of players vying for jobs next season. Few can say they didn't get enough of a chance to be evaluated. "I saw a lot of them in Spring Training and formed some ideas," Baker said. "In spring, I play everybody. I'm trying to follow them over the course of the year to see if there's improvement, or guys that you weren't as high on are more seasoned players or guys that you were high on are more Spring Training players. You compare who we're playing, who we're facing." The next stretch should offer more details of what Cincinnati has to work with. On Friday, it'll begin a season-high stretch of 17 days in a row with a game until the next day off. It begins with a 10-day road trip through Atlanta, Colorado and Chicago. The Braves and Rockies are still serious contenders for the playoffs, where the Reds want to be as soon as next year. "You get a better barometer when you're playing contenders," Baker said. "When you're playing non-contending teams, they're kind of in the same position you're in, trying to find out about things." Can any stock be put into players' performances during the final month when there's no pressure to contend? "It's better than no stock," Baker said. "Joey Votto was in the same position a couple of Septembers ago." During the next 17 games, it's possible for some of the regular players to come off of the disabled list. Jay Bruce and Ryan Hanigan are close to starting rehab assignments. Ramon Hernandez and Chris Dickerson are trying to get back before the season ends. If the Reds can go 14-15 over the final 29 games, they'll equal last season's 74-88 record. Of course, they'd like to finish better. "Any momentum now you can carry into next year is great," Stubbs said. "If you can end the season on a positive note, use that for the start of next year, it kind of helps kick-start the season a little bit. We're enjoying ourselves now and playing good baseball. Hopefully, we'll keep it going."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.