CINCINNATI -- Pursuing the St. Louis Cardinals closely is one thing. Catching them could be something very different, not to mention very difficult.
There is a top-shelf matchup in Cincinnati this weekend, matching teams with two of the four best records in the National League. There are the aforementioned Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds, who are, by the numbers, one of baseball's best teams. Unfortunately for the Reds, their 36-25 record gets them only a second-place tie with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Central, behind, of course, the Cardinals.
The Cards have Major League Baseball's best record at 40-21. The degree of difficulty facing the Reds, and all the rest of the Redbirds' opponents, was illustrated at Great American Ballpark on Friday night. St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright refused to buckle when the game was still close; the Cardinals bunched their hits to great effect and eventually prevailed, 9-2.
The Cards have four starting pitchers, their projected closer and their projected starting shortstop on the disabled list, but they have such impressive organizational depth -- particularly pitching depth -- that they have not only overcome these injuries, they have prospered.
Of course, it is merely early June and much can change. Beyond that notion, the consolation for the Reds could end up being the NL Wild Card. They are the defending NL Central champions, but this is exactly what the Wild Card envisioned, a highly competitive team that doesn't win a division.
It is too early for concession speeches, but the quality of the Cardinals' work has been indisputable, unmistakable, and at this point, cannot be dismissed because of inadequate sample size. The Reds are in postseason position, but not in first place.
"It would be frustrating if we were 15 games out," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "Imagine if we weren't playing .600 ball, how far we might be behind. You can look at it both ways.
"It doesn't even seem like we're playing .600 ball. You know most of the time when you're playing .600 ball. But it doesn't seem like it. We're struggling some. Seems like it's been a struggle almost the whole time, because of the way our games go. We haven't really blown anybody out and we've only been blown out a couple times. We've been in almost every game, with a pitch or two or a hit with runners in scoring position, we'd be a whole lot better.
"So it's been a pleasant struggle, if there is such a thing. This is what it feels like. I'd be very happy if we had a pleasant, happy success, or something."
The Cardinals aren't taking anything for granted, even after a brilliant 20-7 May. Their outstanding play so far not only makes them pacesetters, but it also sets lofty expectations for their own performance.
"More than anything else, it sets that level of expectation that this is what we should look like," manager Mike Matheny said. "When you're playing well, it's a hard pace to keep up with, but I think if the guys never see where everything is clicking -- the defense, the starting pitching, the bullpen, the offense, timely hitting -- if they don't see some of those components, then they wonder, 'Is it ever going to be there?' But if early in the season you prove to yourselves that you can do that for a considerable amount of time, I think that all of a sudden becomes the expectation, and anything short of that, they're not going to settle with.
"And I think that's a great place to be. It's where I believe we are. Because these guys have seen themselves do all of the above. Now it's just a matter of willing it to happen on a consistent basis."
The Cardinals are playing their game, up to their expectations. If they maintain this level, it won't matter what anybody else does.
"The cardinal sin -- and it's something that we should never do and we've done in the past, so we should know from experience -- is to look up at that scoreboard and find out where they [the Reds] are," Wainwright said. "We need to play our game. Right now, we just need to worry about ourselves."
Baker was asked if he felt that the Cardinals were, in fact, the best team in baseball.
"You can feel how you want to feel," Baker said, "but the stats don't lie."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.