CINCINNATI -- It's only April and the second series of the regular season, but a Reds-Cardinals series always has an extra layer (or two) of intrigue.
Sure, there are many former Cardinals who are employed by the Reds -- including third baseman Scott Rolen and general manager Walt Jocketty. And the rivals have had hard-fought games over the past several seasons. As for 2012, both teams are expected to be front-runners for the National League Central crown, which adds more meaning.
"I feel like the Cardinals are the best team in the division because they won it all last year," said Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips, who was involved in a bench-clearing altercation with Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina in 2010. "They're playing good baseball like they always do. I feel they're the team to beat. I feel we're going to give many teams a run for their money."
Can an early series like this have as much meaning as one played in August or September?
"We'll see," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "We know the Cardinals are here. And we've got them next week, too, [in St. Louis]."
Certainly, there is a big difference to the 2012 edition of the Cardinals. Superstar Albert Pujols defected to the Angels as a free agent, manager Tony La Russa retired and pitching coach Dave Duncan left for personal reasons.
The Reds don't expect to see a weaker St. Louis club in transition, however.
"Everyone can say what they want about losing Albert and losing Tony," Reds right fielder Jay Bruce said. "They're still going to be a premier team in this league. I think those guys are good enough ballplayers over there to where the [loss of a] manager isn't going to take too much of a toll on how they play. It's not going to be easy. They're not going to lay down for us."
"I feel like they'll be much more hungry, because they're out to prove that two people can't really win a championship," Phillips said. "[Pujols and La Russa] were two very important aspects to that team, but you have to realize there are other guys on the team that are putting food on the table, also."
Bruce maturing as a hitter
CINCINNATI -- With three home runs in the previous series vs. the Marlins, including two in Sunday's 6-5 win, Reds right fielder Jay Bruce is the first player in club history to hit three homers through the team's first three games.
Bruce feels he has developed a better plan as a hitter, and is trying to be more selective.
"I try to stay over the plate," Bruce said. "I have an approach I've really worked on."
Reds manager Dusty Baker believes that longevity in the game comes from making adjustments -- and re-adjusting some more -- as the league learns younger hitters like Bruce.
"I tell them that any plan, whether I understand it or not, is better than no plan," Baker said on Monday. "For a while there, they were kind of getting Jay out the same way over and over again. I told him, 'These guys aren't any better than you. Some of the upperclassmen are tricking you.' That's how it usually works out."
Bray makes his 2012 debut vs. Cards
CINCINNATI -- Because Bill Bray was limited to 3 2/3 innings over four games during the Cactus League schedule because of a groin injury, manager Dusty Baker has said the Reds' lefty reliever was rusty and still in "Spring Training mode."
Until Monday, Bray had yet to see action in the regular season. His season debut came in relief of Homer Bailey during the Reds' 7-1 loss to the Cardinals. Bray pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing one walk and recording two strikeouts.
"You can't get those innings I missed in Spring Training back, because there is no situation where it doesn't count anymore," Bray said. "But I feel good. Am I throwing all of my pitches? Yes. I feel like I am ready.
"I can do whatever they need me to do. We have a good bullpen, especially with [Aroldis] Chapman and [Sean] Marshall. We've got a great starting staff. Whatever they want me for, I am happy to do."
After Spring Training, the Reds released left-handed reliever Clay Zavada, who was one of the later cuts in camp.
Shortstop Paul Janish, currently at Triple-A Louisville, was named the International League's Player of the Week. Janish hit .429 (6-for-14) and led the league with two home runs (both on Opening Day), 14 total bases, and a 1.000 slugging percentage.