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Richard Justice

Almost-flawless Reds as good as any team in league

Manager's faith in rookie leadoff hitter Hamilton among reasons for success

Almost-flawless Reds as good as any team in league

The Cincinnati Reds are evolving right in front of our eyes. At the moment, there probably isn't a better team in the National League.

Since May 30, they've gone 25-13 to go from 8 1/2 games back to 3 1/2 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.

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Offensively, only the Brewers have scored more runs in this stretch. Pitching? Only the Nationals and Dodgers have a lower team ERA.

Teams evolve during a six-month season, and during this time of so much competitive balance, playoff berths will be decided by the teams playing their best in September.

Still, the Reds are a team with very few weaknesses. Very few? Try none. At least, none at the moment.

Let's count the reasons.

First, there's rookie manager Bryan Price. He won widespread praise around the game during 14 years as a big league pitching coach, including the last four with Cincinnati.

Price's track record was as that of a great tactician, communicator and listener, someone who gained the trust of his players. Reds general manager Walt Jocketty planned to cast a wider net in his search for Dusty Baker's replacement.

But a couple of long talks with Price convinced Jocketty he had the right man already on his staff. And Price -- honest, consistent and rock solid -- has passed every test with flying colors in setting the right tone.

There's also rookie leadoff man Billy Hamilton. Back in Spring Training, he seemed to be more of a novelty. Price kept telling reporters they shouldn't sell the 23-year-old kid short, that he might end up doing almost everything well.

There simply was no track record. Hamilton hit .256 and struck out 102 times at Triple-A last season, and to think he could jump to the big leagues and play the way he has defies logic. Yet look at him now.

Defensively, Hamilton is the best center fielder in baseball. This is the part of his game the Reds figured would come around first.

What they couldn't have known is that Hamilton would look so comfortable at home plate so quickly. And he has gotten consistently better.

Hamilton's on-base percentage was .280 in April, .301 in May and .348 in June. During Cincinnati's 25-13 stretch, it's .340.

Even during Spring Training, when Hamilton was seeing big league pitching for the first time, he never seemed overmatched. Considering the 37 stolen bases and the impact plays he has made in the outfield, he's everything the Reds hoped for and a whole lot more.

Hats off to Jocketty, who once more has shown why he's one of the best in the business. When we'd ask him if he was giving Hamilton more than he could handle at this point in his career, Jocketty essentially would say, "Trust me."

Jocketty also believed in catcher Devin Mesoraco, Cincinnati's first-round pick in 2007. Jocketty decided his time had come, as well.

Check. Mesoraco is hitting .313 and will be a member of the NL All-Star team. His .995 OPS is tops among NL catchers, and only Evan Gattis has more home runs. Only Miguel Montero has more RBIs.

And there's Todd Frazier. His 17 home runs are tops among NL third basemen, and in just his third full big league season, he has done everything well.

Combine those three with Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto (who is on the disabled list), and the Reds' lineup is as deep and as impressive as any.

There may not be a better rotation in the NL Central now that Mat Latos is back from the disabled list. Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Alfredo Simon are 15-5 during the hot stretch, Homer Bailey is coming off his two best starts of the season and Latos has a 2.41 ERA in five starts.

Closer Aroldis Chapman finished his 18th save on Tuesday with a 102-mph fastball, and there are good arms in front of him.

That the Reds are poised to make a run at their fourth playoff appearance in five years is a surprise to no one. That they've gotten 11 victories from Simon is one of those little pieces of good news that every contending team must have.

Teams like the Reds, who can't outspend every other team, must be able to replenish themselves from within, and that's why the emergence of Hamilton, Mesoraco and Simon (a waiver claim) has been so important.

With Bruce and Votto hitting below their career averages, and with Bailey having had some bumps in the roads, Cincinnati could still get better.

But the Reds have already played their way back into the middle of things, and in a division in which the Brewers, Cardinals and Pirates almost certainly aren't going away, it could be a chaotic September.

At the moment, though, the Reds are as good as anyone.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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