CINCINNATI - The Reds are the best team in Major League Baseball. With 80 wins and 52 losses, the Reds were 1.5 games ahead of the next best team in baseball, the Washington Nationals, not to mention 8 games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central.
Take that in for a second.
Reflect on the 22 years since the Reds were the best team in the MLB during their 1990 World Series season.
Think back to those recent rough times of Aaron Harang's inconsistency, Francisco Cordero's breath-holding save attempts and Adam Dunn's younger years that went down as two strike outs per three at-bats.
Remember Brett Tomko's shortcomings, Ryan Freel's lack of development and the missing relief pitching throughout the first decade this millennia?
Now erase those bad memories and flash forward to this team. The starting pitching is solid, the bullpen is lights out and the offense doesn't leave men on base.
And has anyone noticed that Joey Votto hasn't been in the Cincinnati Reds lineup for more than a month?
Sure, you've probably seen the rotating door at first base, but the offensive production has been minimally affected.
You hear words like "stepped up" and "compensated" applied to the rest of the team in Joey's absence, but those buzz words don't really apply. This team hasn't done anything different than they did with Votto in the lineup.
Look at the consistent replacement for Votto in the lineup, Miguel Cairo: He's batting well below .200, but yet this team is playing .700 baseball with Votto on the DL, the time in which the Reds have shot to the top of the MLB mountain.
The team's demeanor will remind Reds fans of the 2010 Central Division Champion squad. On that team, the same core was here, but the young players hadn't developed the talent as they have today, and the group played more on hustle and heart.
They've carried that heart with them since then, and this team is postseason-bound thanks to the talent that has developed across the roster.
It may be cliché, but it couldn't be more true with this year's Reds: Everyone on this team isn't playing for a contract, stats or to get to a certain win-loss record; this team is playing for each other and playing for your fellow man is the best way to make sure he crosses the plate.
And, man, it is fun to watch.
The Reds management deserves a lot of the credit for this year's success. They got the three biggest potential contract distractions out of the way at the beginning of this year in Bruce, Votto and Phillips. Once they lock up Johnny Cueto longer term (his contract expires in 2014 with a 2015 option), there is reason to start thinking about season tickets throughout the next five to six years.
And the other pieces the Reds put in place on this team couldn't have melded better.
They have the young and hungry talent that hustle every play like Zach Cozart, Todd Frazier and Jay Bruce, and the wiley veterans just looking to give it their last and best shot at a World Series in Scott Rolen, Miguel Cairo and Wilson Valdez. To the superstars they've built around with confidence in their roles in Votto, Phillips and Cueto, to the guys that are out to prove they've got what it takes in Ryan Ludwick, Drew Stubbs and basically the entire Reds pitching staff.
Consider the Reds bullpen and how they've formed into a cohesive unit over the past few years. While the Reds added key pieces this year in Sean Marshall and what was hopefully going to be Ryan Madson, they've had the other guys on their rotation fall into roles the team needs. Alfredo Simon's acquisition gave Cincinnati a long reliever and took pressure off Sam LeCure. With Madson's injury gave clarity to the role in which Aroldis Chapman was going to not only fit into, but shine in. Marshall became the clear set up guy, but the rest of the bullpen took notice and started to strut their stuff (key Jose Arredondo's breakout year and Logan Ondrusek's early season dominance). Were it not for the injury to Nick Masset too, this pen would be scary good. All that said, credit Reds pitching coach Bryan Price for his hard work with these young men.
The wild card has always been Dusty Baker and his decision making with the pitching staff, but just this past week against the Phillies he took Cueto out of the game in the 6th when a run hadn't crossed the plate yet, knowing that his bullpen is as strong as it is, and the Reds got out of a no outs, men on second and third situation with as minimal damage as possible. Just a day before that, Dusty went to the mound and consulted Bronson Arroyo to see if he had enough to get through the 9th after a lead-off single. They came to the conclusion he didn't, and the Reds pulled out a victory.
Even though it may have taken some time, Dusty Baker not only has his guys fitting into the perfect roles roster-wide, but he knows what those roles are and when to use them.
It's rare a team comes together with such cohesive personalities, athletic abilities and astute levels of understanding of the game. It's all smiles
in the dugout, humble acknowledgement of success in the media and a common theme of "this team is playing really well" in interviews.
Don't just praise the stars on this team for elevating this team's performance, credit each and every member of the 40-man roster for knowing their place and executing it to an incredibly high level.
Credit Ryan Hanigan's quiet, confident leadership both behind and at the plate. Give props to Homer Bailey's willingness to work on his composure to be arguably the best No. 5 pitcher in an MLB rotation. Applaud Matt Latos' effort to shrug off his May and become ace-material. Thank Arroyo for keeping a cool head about pitching in the No. 4 spot sometimes despite having a World Series ring that can often get to a player's head. And even when Mike Leake gives up six runs in an outing, he comes right back out on the mound the next time out and steals the show (Sorry Mike, pun intended). And how about Mr. Utility Chris Heisey? Calmly waiting on the bench for his chance, and taking advantage of every pitch he sees.
Be gracious for Dusty Baker's time-frame for Rolen's injuries this season. Now that he's healthy, he's batting over .350 and playing better than he has in five years. And the confidence in Phillips and Ludwick, who's early numbers weren't what the team wanted, but came around in due time.
Someone different steps up every night to propel this team to victory, especially with the man sporting the MVP title in Joey Votto on the bench. But whenever anyone crosses the plate or gets that last out, everyone in the dugout has a hand up to egg them on, knowing they have their back and would want nothing more than to do the same for their teammate.
Joey, we can't wait to have you back. This modern day Red Machine will certainly turn its gears even faster with you on the shifter, but this team has never been and will never be about one man. This is the Cincinnati Redlegs.
So take notice ESPN, because while superstar names like Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez are in the headlines for being on the move to big-spending LA, it's the quiet kids from the Queen City that are moving up the standings.