The Battle for First! (Sort of.)

And so, it seems, it has come down to this. The Cardinals, who have led this division for virtually the entire season despite a streaky up-and- down season, have put themselves in the position of having to defend first place against the second-place Reds late in the year.

The last head-to head matchup against the Not-So-Big Red Too- Streaky-To-Be-Called-A Machine could prove to be the most important set of the rest of the Cardinals' season.

The Cardinals, who have been trying desperately to fall out of the playoff race for the last month and a half, have the opportunity to finally do so in spectacular fashion this week. But that will only happen if the Reds, who have been trying desperately not to take the lead in the mediocre Central Division, can get their act together and play the Birds like, well, the bottom-feeder Cubs and Pirates have lately. The biggest questions lurking out there these days then will come to head during the mid-week matchup: can the Cardinals start playing well again and seal up the division, will they continue the sloppy play and give it away, or will the Reds step up and steal it?

Hitting Picking Up

Just like a hoosier boyfriend who has been laid off again, the Reds are starting to hit a lot more over the last 30 days. Leading the way is first baseman Scott Hatteberg who is hitting at a .391 clip over the last month. Hatteberg, acquired for a song from Cleveland this year, has a career .355 average against Chris Carpenter and will also have a chance to show up his former second baseman, Ronnie Belliard, who is obviously scooping balls for the Cards these days.

Within striking distance of him is Edwin Encarnacion who has knocked the ball around at a .387 average. On top of that, the non-Juan Encarnacion was named the National League Player of the Week for his exploits against the Cardinals and Phillies last week.

In addition to those who are hot this month, the Reds can boast six other regularly playing roster players who are hitting .279 or above. Not included in that number are the dual threats of Ken Griffey (Jr) and Adam Dunn (the first), who have combined for 58 home runs this season. Dunn, in particular, has been especially dangerous this season with 35 bombs, and appears to be on target to break his previous career high of 46. He's already hit five against the Cardinals in 12 games this year and looks to add to his totals here.

Starters Struggling

In a story that Cardinals fans are all too familiar with hearing, the Reds are having difficulty getting consistent quality starts from the five-man rotation. Over-reliance on the staff ace hasn't gotten them far and seems to be wearing on Aaron Harang as his quality starts drop off. The second guy in the line, Bronson Arroyo, has likewise seen his performance dip over the last few weeks, as he gives up more and more runs (24 of his 67 in the last five starts) and hasn't won in that time. In fact, middle reliever Todd Coffey has three wins in the last 30 days while the five starters have just five amongst them.

The Reds will bring the best they have into the series, as Harang, Arroyo and Kyle Lohse look to get the starts in the mustwin series. They will line up against the top of the Cardinals rotation, so the battle of the struggling pitchers can decide the battle of the struggling division leaders.

Stopper Getting Hot

The Reds closer, Eddie Guardado has been very good for the team since coming over from the Seattle Mariners earlier this year. He has closed out six of his last eight opportunities and has posted a 1.32 ERA. Compared to the 5.48 and only five saves he gave the Mariners, it seems safe to say that he has taken to the Cincinnati area

So, What's it gonna be?

In a series that could go a long way to determining the final Central Division landscape it will be interesting to see if one of the streaky teams in the park today will steal the spotlight. Will it be the Reds inconsistent starters that get the job done, or will it be the Cardinals' inconsistent starters that make things happen? Will it be the Reds decent-hitting but potentially powerful lineup that strings together the hits, or will it be the Cards' decent-hitting but potentially powerful hitters that get the hits? A sweep by either team would be a huge deal, but looking at the mirror-image teams, it seems more than likely that they'll split this set and continue their game of "who wants the division?"


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