Let's talk about what's going down this weekend in the Cincinnati Reds series, besides Hunter Pence apparently not knowing which pitcher he would face tonight.
1) Are the Reds for real? - When last we saw the Reds, they were 30-21 with a one game lead in the NL Central. Now, they are 53-44 and are a game and a half behind the white-hot Cardinals. The Reds have had just one month where their record is significantly over .500 (May - 18-11). Their Pythagorean record is even exactly the same as their actual record. The big advantage for the Reds seems to be home field. They are 10 games above .500 at Great American Ballpark, for reasons we'll get to in a second. I keep expecting them to fall off, but they are still hanging around. I expect them to keep pushing the Cards for the division title for the rest of the season, because....
2) Cincy's offense is really, really good - The GAB provides a huge advantage for Cincy's hitters. This article by Jeff Sullivan dives into the advantage the Reds have at home, specifically in hitting more home runs. He also looks closer at Joey Votto and concludes that the young slugger does hit more home runs at home than on the road, but is still an elite hitter in his own right. Overall, the Reds have scored 100 less runs on the road than at home in nine fewer games. They have also given up about 70 runs less, so the Astros don't quite get a break by facing Cincy at MMP.
3) Their pitching is returning - Edinson Volquez is returning from a disabled list stint. Johnny Cueto is starting to deal, allowing one or fewer runs in five of his last six starts. Mike Leake is making an impressive run at the Rookie of the Year award. Aaron Harang and Homer Bailey are missing from the starting rotation for the Reds, though Harang's back issues may have settled down recently. If Volquez can return to form and the Reds don't miss Harang for too long, they have a very strong rotation without having to trade for anyone. If Bailey comes back, they may have the firepower to catch the Cardinals.
4) Youth on display - The other thing about this weekend series is it will feature three Reds starters who are 24 or younger. Cueto is a 24 in his third professional season while Friday starter Travis Wood and Leake are both 23-year old rookies. Of course, Wood had a perfect game broken up in the ninth inning of an eventual loss to Philadelphia while Leake leads all rookie pitchers in innings and is tied for the lead in wins. (Let's not mention that Strasburg has more strikeouts in half the innings). The Astros don't do well the first time they see a pitcher, so it may be tough for them Friday against Wood.*
* That's completely an anecdotal statement. I have no evidence to back it up. It may happen to lots of teams.
5) Stubbs heating up - He doesn't walk very much, but Drew Stubbs is really hitting the ball well right now. He leads the Reds in wOBA over the past week at .448. That includes two doubles and two home runs, but he's also struck out nine times. Stubbs isn't a great hitter yet, but he is showing good power and is making solid contact right now. With a lineup that already includes some mashers, it's scary that he's getting hot.