When the Reds host the St. Louis Cardinals tonight in the opener of a three-game showdown between the top two teams in the National League Central, it will be the biggest baseball game played in Cincinnati in this millennium.
The Reds haven't had a winning season since 2000 and haven't contended for a postseason berth since 1999, when they lost a one-game playoff to the New York Mets for the NL wild card. However, the Reds have won nine of 11 to move 16 games over .500 and take a two-game lead over the Cardinals with a chance to extend that margin this week.
It would be easy to write the Reds off as a fluke, especially after a decade of losing. However, there is nothing fluky about a team that leads the NL in runs scored (4.89 a game), is third in defensive efficiency (converting 70.9 percent of balls in play into outs) and sixth in runs allowed (4.14) this deep in the season.
The Reds seem quite capable of continuing their fine play for two months and earning their first postseason berth since winning the NL Central in 1995.
First baseman Joey Votto has emerged as a star in his third full major league season: He has hit 28 home runs, has a .339 TAv and is threatening to win the modern triple crown with a .321 batting average, .421 on-base percentage and .603 slugging percentage.
Votto and resurgent third baseman Scott Rolen (.311 TAv) are leading an offense that is also getting solid production from rookie center fielder Chris Heisey (.313), second baseman Brandon Phillips (.278), catcher Ramon Hernandez (.276) and left fielder Jonny Gomes (.270).
Shortstop Orlando Cabrera is likely to be out until sometime in September after straining an oblique muscle last month. However, that doesn't figure to be a killer blow, as the veteran has just a .239 TAv and is being replaced by someone who is younger and has more range in Paul Janish, who also has a surprising .283 TAv.
The Reds figure to get a big boost for their bullpen any day now when left-hander Aroldis Chapman is called up from Triple-A Louisville. Chapman was the subject of a bidding war last winter after his defection from Cuba, and the usually cost-conscious Reds won it with a $30.25 million offer. He has been outstanding since being moved to relief in late June, holding opponents to a .169 batting average and no home runs in 90 plate appearances while averaging 12.88 strikeouts and 3.71 walks per nine innings.
A bullpen wild card for the Reds playing in Indianapolis is Jason Isringhausen, who has 293 career saves and is trying to come back from Tommy John surgery at 37. He has a 4.91 ERA in four relief appearances since being signed last month.
There is concern about the fatigue factor for rookie starters Mike Leake and Travis Wood. In his first professional season, Leake has pitched 126 innings and has a 5.84 ERA in his past four starts to raise his season mark to 3.86. Wood's inning count is at 149 between Louisville and the majors, nearing the lefty's professional high of 167 2/3 from last season.
However, the Reds have been giving Leake extra rest between starts and they should get rotation reinforcements soon as Homer Bailey (shoulder) and Aaron Harang (back) are scheduled to come off the DL later in the month. Harang, the Reds' opening day starter each of the past five seasons, could be pushed to long relief because of the surplus of arms.
The Reds will have only one more shot at the Cardinals after this week as the teams finish their season series with a three-game set at St. Louis from Sept. 3-5. However, the Reds enjoy the advantage of 18 remaining games with the four also-rans in the NL Central: the Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates.
One aspect of the schedule that could trip the Reds up is that they travel to either the Mountain or Pacific time zones on each of their remaining three road trips, the most grueling one being a nine-game jaunt to Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Francisco with no days off from Aug. 17-25.
If the Reds get through that trip without contracting a serious case of jet lag, it should be an interesting September in the Queen City for reasons that have nothing to with Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .