Red alert! Games with Cincy loom as potentially decisive in the division

Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty didn't need to scour scouting reports, read the standings or even follow Cincinnati's trail of transactions to get a read on this year's Reds.

He didn't have to look beyond the boardroom.

"I know Bob Castellini well, and I know his will and his desire to win," Jocketty said of Cincinnati's new chief executive officer, a former member of the Cardinals' ownership group. "He's always projected himself as a guy who is going to be very aggressive in terms of trying to turn around that franchise. ... They were not on a long-term plan to win, they were on a short-term plan to win. Advertisement

"They were gearing to try and win this year."

The Cardinals open a four-game series at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park tonight with the Reds trailing by 3 1/2 games in the NL Central. Not since 2002 has Cincinnati been this close to first place in the standings this late in the season. A year ago the Reds, who lead the wild card standings by one game, trailed the Cardinals by 20 games. The gap was 17 1/2 in 2004.

This summer's division race could be determined shortly as the rivals play each other seven times in the next 10 days and not again this summer.

"This is our run to win the division," Reds starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo told Cincinnati reporters this weekend. "If they beat us in the two series, we're probably just looking at the wild card."

Arroyo is one element of how the Reds have prepped for this series against the Cardinals and one example of how aggressive the Reds have been in pursuit of the bar-setting Cardinals. The righthander volunteered to throw on three days' rest, starting Saturday against Atlanta, so he could pitch in this series and line up for a start in the three-game series at Busch Stadium that starts Aug. 15. Arroyo (9-7) will take his 10th shot at his 10th victory Thursday.

That also will be the third day of this series that the Reds will offer a selection of half-priced tickets in a handful of sections. Hot dogs will be $1 for the entire series.

Reds first baseman Scott Hatteberg, signed as a free agent, represents the first of first-year general manager Wayne Krivsky's assertive and multiple moves to remake the Reds, and fast. Before the Reds were a week into the season Krivsky had added a stabilizing starter in Arroyo and a disenchanted prospect-turned-blooming star in second baseman Brandon Phillips.

Cincinnati still rolls thunder from its stalwarts - Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. help boost the Reds to a league-best 156 home runs - but Krivsky's recent deals reveal what has been the Reds' weakness and the lengths he's willing to go to patch it: the bullpen.

"Bob (Castellini) has, from Day One, given us in the baseball department incredible leeway to be aggressive and make the necessary moves," Krivsky said Sunday night. "He said if the club was in contention, ownership would step up. And they have, like agreeing to the ($2.25 million) extension for Rheal Cormier."

Krivsky has acquired 14 new players so far this season, 11 on the major-league roster. His July deals were for five pitchers, four of whom are relievers. They were needed to repair a bullpen with a 5.28 ERA in early July. It is still the highest in the league, but the ERA has sunk to 4.81.

To make a deal for relievers Bill Bray and Gary Majewski, who fumbled a two-run lead in Sunday's loss, Krivsky sent two everyday starters to Washington.

"We needed to improve the bullpen," he said. "Everybody says you don't trade two regulars for two relievers. But why not - if that's where you need the help?"

The Cardinals are the first team in major-league history to have two eight-game losing streaks in a season and not slip out of first place during the skids. That is mainly because the Reds, who had a five-game losing streak last week, have not seized on opportunities unless they are head-to-head. Cincinnati has won six of eight games against the Cardinals this season and five in a row. That includes a sweep in June at Busch that Reds infielder Rich Aurilia called "almost unthinkable."