The Cardinals were considered to have the easiest road to a division title when the season began. PECOTA pegged them to win the National League Central by nine games. Furthermore, the Cardinals were universally picked to repeat as division champions by all the pre-season publications.

Yet with the season on the doorstep of September, the Cardinals are not in first place. Instead, they trail the Reds by 2 ½ games. Just two weeks ago, the Cardinals were on top by two games after sweeping the Reds in a three-game series at Cincinnati.

"It goes to show you what one good week and one bad week will do for you," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "The Reds are legitimate. I've been saying that for a long time now. They haven't gone away, and they're not going away. The good thing for us is we have enough games against them to make up the difference, but we're going to have to win those games when the time comes."

The time is coming in just a week and a half. The two lone teams still in contention for the NL Central title will meet for the final time this season—unless a one-game playoff is needed to break a first-place tie—from September 3-5 at St. Louis.

The Cardinals are 10-5 against the Reds and seemingly sent a message with the sweep in Cincinnati. Furthermore, the Reds haven't been to the postseason since 1995, so the Cardinals have the advantage of more pennant-race experience. However, Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols isn't counting on any intangibles to carry the day for his team.

"We're the team in second place, we're the ones chasing them," Pujols said. "We're in the more difficult situation. That's why we can't just worry about that series. Every game is important for us from now until the end of the season."

Interestingly enough, it could be the play of two rookies that makes the difference for a Cardinals team long on big-game experience. Though overshadowed by such big names as Stephen Strasburg and Jason Heyward in this year's NL rookie class, outfielder Jon Jay and left-hander Jaime Garcia are having outstanding seasons. Jay has a .322 TAv in 201 at-bats to give a boost to an offense that boasts Pujols (.341) and left fielder Matt Holliday (.311), while Garcia has contributed 4.6 SNLVAR to provide a nice complement to co-aces Adam Wainwright (7.5) and Chris Carpenter (6.1).

Jay has been a bit of a revelation, as he was ranked as the Cardinals' 12th-best prospect coming into the season by Kevin Goldstein. And while he may prove to be a small sample-size fluke in September, La Russa has been quite impressed by Jay, who born and raised in Miami and played collegiately for the hometown Hurricanes.

"He's done everything you could ask," La Russa said. "He's hit left-handers and right-handers. He's ran the bases well. He's played good defense. He's a quality player."

Jay did not make the team out of spring training, and few could have foreseen him having this kind of impact. Though lightly regarded as a prospect, Jay said he believed he could perform at a high level in the major leagues if given the chance.

"Growing up in Miami, regularly playing in front of 3,000 people in high school then playing at the University of Miami, it prepared me for this opportunity, and I'm not overwhelmed by it," Jay said. "A lot of my friends and old teammates have gone on to be successful major-league players. I always felt I could follow suit."

Garcia hasn't been as big of a surprise as Jay, as Goldstein had him ranked as the Cardinals' second-best prospect. However, the biggest question surrounding Garcia is how many more innings he has left. He has pitched 141 1/3 this season after being limited to 37 2/3 last season in the minor leagues while returning from Tommy John surgery to reconstruct his pitching elbow. Garcia is learning the importance of efficiency, as he needed just 89 pitches Sunday to throw his first career complete game, a three-hit shutout of the Giants.

"I feel great," Garcia said. "I'm willing to pitch as much as they want me to. I know they've given me extra rest lately between starts and they have my best interests in mind. Hopefully, I can still be able to pitch in late October."

That, of course, would mean that the Cardinals are in the World Series. While it seemed a real possibility when the season started, making it to the Fall Classic would be more heady stuff now.

"We've been in pennant races before and we know what it takes to win," Pujols said. "Now, it's up to us to win ballgames."

Third-base coach Mike Quade was the somewhat surprising choice to be the Cubs' interim manager after Lou Piniella decided to begin his retirement early on Sunday. Bench coach Alan Trammell would have seemed like a more logical choice because he has major-league managerial experience, but the former Tigers skipper was told by general manager Jim Hendry that he will not considered for the permanent job. Quade, for his part, will get a chance to use the final 37 games of the season to prove he should be Piniella's successor.

"If it's something you want to do at this level, whether it's here or anywhere else, you'd like to think it's some kind of a boost," Quade said. "Boost, no boost. It's something I'm excited about."

Quade spent 17 seasons as a minor-league manager and spent his first two major-league games beating the Nationals on Monday and Tuesday at Washington. Catcher Geovany Soto presented Quade with the game ball from the final out of Monday night's 9-1 victory, and umpire Tim Timmons gave the 53-year-old another game ball and the official lineup card.

"I'm not nostalgic about that, but it's cool," Quade said.

Moving up from coach to manager can often be a awkward step. However, Quade had a pre-game meeting Monday to stress his expectations to the players and explain that his relationship with them would now be different.

"I wanted to mainly let them know that, 'You know who I am, but my voice is going to be a little louder, and if you want to know what my pet peeves are, here they are,'" Quade said. "I would prefer not to have a mystery and to let them know what differences they may see now."

Angels manager Mike Scioscia has used 101 different batting orders in 127 games this season. That is quite a departure for a manager who has taken pride in having a stable roster and lineup during his previous 10 seasons. However, the loss of Kendry Morales for the season with a broken leg in late May, along with an offense that is ninth in the American League in runs scored with an average of 4.43 a game, has made filling out the lineup card a challenge.

"When you talk about the lineup, you really look at the first five or six guys," Scioscia said. "The bottom of the lineup is going to change on a daily basis. We've evolved into a couple different looks, whether (Erick) Aybar was leading off or now with Bobby Abreu there or whether Torii (Hunter) was batting third or fourth. I don't think that part of it has been excessive. What becomes a challenge is when guys you expect to have their routine years are all having sub-par years. That has caused maybe a little more juggling."

Scioscia prefers to put players in groupings within the batting order, then let them find some continuity. However, the lack of scoring has forced Scioscia to consistently shake things up.

"There have been some different groupings that we've tried to move forward with," he said. "We've definitely had to make some pretty major adjustments."

However, it has been veritable potpourri at first base as Juan Rivera is now the 10th different player to see time at the position this season. He joins a list that includes Mike Napoli, Brandon Wood, Howie Kendrick, Paul McAnulty, Kevin Frandsen, Robb Quinlan, Michael Ryan, and Bobby Wilson. Triple-A Salt Lake's Paul Trumbo is likely to become No. 11 when the roster limit expands to 40 from 25 on September 1.

"You can run through 15 first basemen when you lose a guy like Kendry," Scioscia said.

The Reds are admittedly biased when asked who they think the top candidate is for NL Most Valuable Player. They wholeheartedly endorse first baseman Joey Votto.

"If we win the division, he should be the MVP," right-hander Bronson Arroyo said. "Even if we don't, he should be right up there. To carry a club that hasn't had a winner in a long, long time. Just from a numbers standpoint he's as good as anyone in the game. He deserves everything he deserves."

The Reds are on pace for their first winning season since 1999. However, just as the Reds are trying to fight off the Cardinals in the NL Central, Votto is trying to fight off Pujols, his first-base counterpart in St. Louis. The two are tied for the league lead in TAv at .341, and Pujols holds a 63.9-58.2 edge in VORP.

"He thinks and knows he can hit," Reds manager Dusty Baker said of Votto. "He doesn't like making outs. He's something, boy."

MLB Rumors & Rumblings: Commissioner Bud Selig is said to be furious that various clubs' financial records have been leaked to the Associated Press and in the last few days, and it seems likely that if the source is uncovered that he or she will be fired. … Yankees manager Joe Girardi, despite speculation to the contrary, has little interest in replacing Piniella with the Cubs. … Baker may wait until after the season before deciding to accept the Reds' offer of a contract extension, as he does not want negotiations to become a distraction during the pennant race. … The Rangers remain the front runners to sign outfielder Brad Hawpe, who was released by the Rockies last weekend, but the White Sox, Padres and Rays also have interest … If the Dodgers put left fielder Manny Ramirez on waivers, the White Sox are expected to make a claim and if they don't then the Rays likely will … The Marlins have offered second baseman Dan Uggla a three-year, $30 million contract extension, but his camp is looking for a minimum of four years and $40 million. … Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia will not exercise the "opt-out" clause in his contract after next season. … Red Sox infielder Mike Lowell is almost certain to retire after this season. … The Rockies plan to take a long look at Eric Young Jr. at second base for the remainder of the season with Clint Barmes moving into a utility role. … The Reds are considering moving Edinson Volquez to the bullpen and either activating Aaron Harang or calling up Matt Maloney from Triple-A Louisville to take his place in the rotation … The Mets plan to stick with Hisanori Takahashi as their closer with Francisco Rodriguez out for the year … The Indians, despite having a major hole at third base, do not plan to look at either Triple-A Buffalo's Jared Goedert or Double-A Akron's Lonnie Chisenhall in September.

Injury Report: Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg (forearm) will undergo an arthrogram tomorrow, which should provide a clearer picture of whether the rookie will be able to pitch again this season. Shortstop Ian Desmond (thumb) missed his second straight game last night but is expected to return today. Left fielder Josh Willingham (knee) will have season-ending surgery today. … The White Sox bullpen is going to take a big hit today when both left-hander Matt Thornton (forearm) and right-hander J.J. Putz will be placed on the disabled list. Thornton is expected to return on the first day he is eligible on September 2. However, Putz, who left last night's game after three pitches, could be out longer. … Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler (groin) was cleared for baseball activities yesterday but won't come off the DL as expected on September 1 as he will begin a rehab assignment next week. Right fielder Nelson Cruz (knee) is on schedule to be activated Monday as he will start a rehab assignment tomorrow. Reliever Frank Francisco (armpit) should return Friday after receiving a cortisone shot yesterday. … Red Sox left-handed reliever Hideki Okajima (hamstring) will stay on his rehab assignment at Triple-A Pawtucket and pitch tonight after giving up four runs in 1/3 of an inning on Monday in what was supposed to be his last appearance. … Orioles center fielder Adam Jones left last night's game with a shoulder contusion after being hit by a pitch and is day-to-day. The bullpen is getting healthier as Jim Johnson (shoulder) is expected to be activated Friday after pitching two scoreless inning for Double-A Bowie yesterday, David Hernandez (ankle) is throwing off flat ground with the likelihood of being activated sometime after September 1, and Jason Berken (shoulder) was told he will not need surgery, though he won't pitch again this season. … Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher left last night's game after fouling a ball off his knee but should be back no later than Friday. … Astros right-hander Brian Moehler left his rehab start with Triple-A Round Rock yesterday as he aggravated his groin injury and could be done for the season. Reliever Matt Lindstrom (back) is scheduled to throw off a mound tonight and is on track to be activated September 1. … Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco (knee) will throw off a mound today for the first time since missing his last start and that will provide a better picture as to when he might be able to return. … Rockies reliever Rafael Betancourt (upper abdominal strain) is sidelined indefinitely by an injury that also bothered him during the second half of last season. … Pirates right-hander Ross Ohlendorf (shoulder) is likely done for the season, though he won't need surgery. Right-hander Jeff Karstens (back) has been scratched from his scheduled start tonight. … Tigers right fielder Magglio Ordonez (ankle) officially won't return this season as he will undergo surgery today. … Dodgers right-hander Chad Billingsley (calf) has been scratched from his scheduled start tonight and will instead pitch Saturday. … Indians center fielder Michael Brantley (ankle) is expected to return to the lineup tonight. … Cubs center fielder Marlon Byrd (hand) sat out last night's game but should be able to play by Friday. … Brewers right fielder Corey Hart (hamstring) is healing slower than expected and may be out through the end of the week. … Royals right-hander Luke Hochevar (shoulder) will make his first rehab start Saturday for Triple-A Omaha. … Twins left-handed reliever Ron Mahay (shoulder) will get a second opinion about his torn rotator cuff before deciding if he will have season-ending surgery.


Scouts' views on various major-league players:

Dodgers catcher Brad Ausmus: "I admire him from coming back from back surgery so quickly, but he just has nothing at all left in the tank. He's a smart guy and he knows it's time to retire."

Orioles right-hander Kevin Millwood: "I know he's cleared waivers and someone might take a shot, but I don't know how much he can help a contender. He's getting older and his stuff has declined to the point where he really struggles to put hitters away."

Marlins left-handed reliever Will Ohman: "He's still a very useful left-on-left guy. He throws that slider low and away to left-handed hitters and they just can't keep themselves from chasing it."

Brewers left-hander Manny Parra: "He's proven beyond the shadow of the doubt that he is not a big-league starting pitcher. He nibbles way too much and his fastball isn't good enough to consistently get hitters out. The best thing would be to use him as a lefty specialist where he could come in and eat up a tough left-handed hitter or two late in a game with his curveball."

Indians closer Chris Perez: "This kid is going to become one of the best closers in the game, maybe as soon as next year. He's got great stuff and isn't afraid of anything. He is in charge from the moment he steps on the mound."

Three series to watch with probable pitching matchups and all times Eastern:

Red Sox (72-54) at Rays (78-48), Friday-Sunday August 27-29
Daisuke Matsuzaka vs. David Price, 7:10 p.m.; Clay Buchholz vs. Matt Garza, 7:10 p.m.; John Lackey vs. James Shields, 8:05 p.m.

Athletics (62-62) at Rangers (71-54), Friday-Sunday August 27-29
Brett Anderson vs. Tommy Hunter, 8:05 p.m.; Dallas Braden vs. Rich Harden, 8:05 p.m.; Gio Gonzalez vs. Colby Lewis, 3:05 p.m.

Phillies (70-55) at Padres (75-49), Friday-Sunday August 27-29
Roy Oswalt vs. Mat Latos, 10:05 p.m.; Joe Blanton vs. Jon Garland, 4:10 p.m.; Cole Hamels vs. Clayton Richard, 4:05 p.m.