The Reds must find a way to pick up the slack with Joey Votto on the shelf. (Joe Robbins/GETTY IMAGES)

With Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and defending World Series champion St. Louis currently separated by just 3 1/2 games in the standings, a key trade deadline acquisition or September call-up could swing momentum one way or another — and so could a key injury.

That was part of the thinking behind Reds’ all-star first baseman Joey Votto’s decision to have surgery this week to repair torn cartilage in his left knee. Rather than risk breaking down in the heat of a division race, the 2010 NL MVP chose to go under the knife now in order to be back and healthy for the home stretch

“It’s in my best interest of the team to do it now so that I can be healthy during the last two months of the pennant race,” Votto said in a statement.

Votto injured the knee while sliding into third base on June 29 in San Francisco and had played through the pain until now. Reds General Manager Walt Jocketty said the surgery is a simple procedure and that Votto could be back in the lineup in three to four weeks.

The 28-year-old slugger is in the midst of another MVP-caliber season and currently ranks first in the NL in on-base percentage (.465) and walks (66) and fifth in batting average (.342). His 14 home runs and 49 RBI rank second and third on the team, respectively.

But as he exits Cincinnati’s lineup, the Reds’ division rivals are picking up steam.

The Cardinals had won 7 of 10 games before suffering a three-game sweep in Cincinnati, and on Sunday they activated six-time all-star Lance Berkman, who missed nearly two months following knee surgery.

Meantime, the Pirates went into the break having won 10 of 12 and continue to ride the red-hot bat of center fielder Andrew McCutcheon and a drastically improved pitching staff.

With a team-high 18 home runs, Jay Bruce is doing his part, but the Reds need others to step up in Votto’s absence. (Al Behrman/AP)

Reds Manager Dusty Baker turned to backup third baseman Todd Frazier to replace Votto in Monday’s loss to Arizona and said Miguel Cairo could also see time at first base. But neither player can replace the offensive prowess Votto provides in the heart of the order, which will increase the pressure on Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Ryan Ludwick and others to pick up the slack.

“We’ve got the guys who can do it,” right fielder Jay Bruce told the Associated Press. “The pressure’s on, but we’ve got to step up. I’m confident that we have those guys on the team.

“Look at the Dodgers. They lost Matt Kemp, but they weathered the storm. It’s early enough that we can weather the storm.”

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