Cincinnati Reds Cincinnati has taken charge in the NL Central. (Al Behrman/Associated Press)

When the Cincinnati Reds rolled into town in mid-April as the Washington Nationals’ third opponent of the season, it wasn’t billed or considered a marquee series. Sure, it was early, but the Reds at that point weren’t the dominating team they are now. They dropped three of four games, including consecutive walk-off losses. A month later, the Nationals traveled to Cincinnati and took two of three games, despite losing everyday catcher Wilson Ramos. 

Since the all-star break in mid-July, however, the Reds have morphed into one of baseball’s elite teams. They lead the National League Central division by 9½ games over the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals entering Friday’s games. When the Nationals stumbled this week, the Reds took the mantel as the team with the best record in baseball. In the race to lock up the top overall seed in the NL playoffs and getting the chance to play a wild-card team in the first round, the Nationals have stiff competition in the Reds.

The Reds are 34-14 in the second half of the season and have done so without one of the game’s best hitters, Joey Votto, who last played on July 15 because of a knee injury. It’s hard to imagine how much better they could when he soon returns. They have an NL rookie of the year candidate in infielder Todd Frazier, who is hitting .293 with 18 home runs and 62 RBI in 106 games. Their right-handed-heavy offense scores 4.40 runs per game, almost identical to the Nationals They are second in the NL in home runs and second in the majors in doubles. But if you factor in the ballparks again, their OPS+ of 95 is major league average.

But the Reds’ strength is their overwhelming pitching staff. They have the best bullpen in the majors, with a combined 2.76 ERA entering Friday and plenty of swing-and-miss pitchers who could be incredibly dangerous in a short playoff series. Their starting pitchers have been durable, each tossing at least 150 innings, led by NL Cy Young candidate Johnny Cueto (17-6, 2.48 ERA over 181 2/3 innings). Big right-hander Mat Latos, for whom they sent prospects to San Diego for in the offseason, has found a groove and is 11-4 with a 3.79 ERA. As a whole, Cincinnati’s pitchers rank fourth in the majors with a 3.46 ERA, behind the Tampa Bay Rays, the Nationals and Oakland Athletics.

If you adjust for a team’s ballpark, which would neutralize the bandbox that is Cincinnati’s Great America Ball Park, the ERA+ reading says the Reds (major league-best 124) have an edge over the Nationals (second-best 121). Jet-fueled closer Aroldis Chapman, who fires 100 mph fastballs with ease, has an unreal 113 strikeouts in 64 innings with 16 walks and 33 saves. Left-hander Sean Marshall and right-hander Jose Arrendondo have been stellar. 

More than a month is left in the season and much of the final jockeying for playoff spots remains. But for now, the Nationals would be wise not to only keep an eye on their immediate opponents and the division rival Atlanta Braves but also on the Reds. Over the past two months, they have proved to baseball that they will be a force to be reckoned with.