John Donovan
Thursday January 20th, 2005

CINCINNATI -- The Reds pulled into the All-Star break as a definite possible in the National League wild-card race, a clear-cut could be. They had no pitching depth to speak of. Their bullpen was spotty. And they were pretty beaten up, too. They were, truth be told, fairly lucky to be six games above .500 at the break.

But if a couple of things went their way in the second half, if they got healthy, the thinking was that the Reds were possibles. They had a chance.

Then the Cardinals came to town. Then they came to town again.

Now, the Reds are beaten up, they are two games under .500 and, very probably, they're not possibles any longer. The Reds have lost eight in a row, and they're 3-11 since the All-Star break. Six of those losses have come against the Cards, including a three-game series wipeout that mercifully -- if somewhat sloppily -- concluded Wednesday night.

Cincinnati hasn't been this glad to get somebody out of town since former mayor Jerry Springer got his talk show.

"We haven't figured them out, that's for sure," said Danny Graves, the Reds' closer. "The one thing we can look at, in this losing streak we're on, is we're playing the best team in baseball, in my opinion. I don't think they can do any wrong."

The Cardinals polished off their sweep of the Reds at Great American Ball Park in a game that had plenty wrong with it. Cardinals starter Jeff Suppan walked 10 batters, including seven in the first three innings. The Cards' bullpen gave up a pinch-hit grand slam to Barry Larkin, part of a six-run fifth inning for the Reds. The St. Louis pen gave up three more runs in the bottom of the eighth. The Cardinals walked 13 Reds altogether, and they left 15 men on base.

Still, the surging Cardinals pounded out 19 hits (including four homers) and high-tailed it out of town with an 11-10 win, upping their record against the Reds to 11-2 this season, 6-1 since the break.

"I've been there," Larkin said. "I've been on teams like that, where you sit in the clubhouse afterward, laughing and saying 'How in the heck did we do that?'

"But that's what happens when you're playing well. You win games you don't have any reasons to win."

The Cardinals, of course, are winning against just about everybody. They are, as Graves said, the best team in baseball. Since May 27, they've won a staggering 75 percent of their games (42-14). They're 19-4 this month. They've hit 40 homers in those 23 games. Before their little bullpen burp Wednesday, they had a 3.02 ERA this month.

After 100 games, the Cards have the third-best record of any Cardinals team ever. They are a team without any gaping holes. Really, the Cardinals may not have any holes at all.

Tony La Russa, the team's exacting manager, knows exactly what he has in this team. His pitching has come around like few people expected. His hitters are doing what everyone expected.

Starters Matt Morris and Jason Marquis are a combined 7-0 this month. The rest of the rotation is 7-2. Jason Isringhausen has nine saves in July, and 26 this season.

La Russa has first baseman Albert Pujols (.389 this month, with nine homers, 22 RBIS and an OPS of well over 1.000). He has center fielder Jim Edmonds (.360 this month, with 12 homers and 21 RBIs in July). He has third baseman Scott Rolen (two homers and two doubles Wednesday, raising his average to .302 this month, with five homers and 16 RBIs).

And when those guys don't deliver, there's always John Mabry (hitting .367 this month) or reclamation project Roger Cedeno (.350 in July).

"How deep is that?" La Russa asked the other day.

The Cardinals are as deep as the hole the rest of the NL Central finds itself in. They have an 11-game lead, the biggest of any division leader. They can pretty much set the cruise control and motor into October from here.

But the Cardinals, almost certainly, won't. They are a veteran team that figures to keep on the pressure for the rest of the season. During their current 42-14 streak, they've lost three in a row only once. They are a team that looks utterly incapable of a sustained losing streak.

"If you started the postseason right now, I think the Yankees are the only team that could hang with them," Graves said. "You just have to be perfect against them."

Anything else and a team could end up like the Reds.

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