This is the Reds team that was supposed to be in full rebuild mode, a Reds team pegged by anyone and everyone to finish last in the National League Central and be an utter non-factor during the 2018 season. All that, of course, can still happen and is happening, in a way. Even though the Reds have won 17 of their last 23 games, they are still a last-place team.
But the Reds were supposed to be a punching bag for the Cubs and other contending clubs this season. Not so much, it's turning out, as the Cubs find themselves staring at a division race that keeps getting tougher. The Central has proven full of formidable foes. And while the first-place Milwaukee Brewers still seem to be missing a pitcher and the St. Louis Cardinals are not that far above .500 and the Pittsburgh Pirates are still the team that traded away its two best players over the offseason, the Cubs are learning that there are no easy games in this division.
"It's really gotten better," manager Joe Maddon said. "You look at the numbers on the stat sheet, they're pretty good up and down. Bullpens, too. (Cincinnati's) bullpen's a lot better than it had been. Milwaukee, ourselves, et cetera. The pitching's good in this division. But so is the offense. (Cincinnati's) got a nice offensive club, so do we.
"It's turned out to be a pretty tough division right now, it's very strong, which is good. I want that. I want us to play, hopefully, what's considered the best division in all of baseball. I think that should bring out the best in your players on a nightly basis. So give them credit, man, they're playing a lot better."
The Reds are on a nice little tear, and they brought that to Wrigley Field on Friday, when Tyler Mahle threw 6.2 innings of one-run ball and the Reds followed up their recent four-game sweep of the Cubs with a 3-2 win in the opener of this series. Raisel Iglesias picked up a five-out save, and while they were dealing with the same windy conditions that the Cubs' offense was, the Reds scratched across enough runs to win the day.
Not something that would've been expected in the preseason.
But this Reds team does have its very bright spots. Scooter Gennett is almost certainly and deservedly going to the All-Star Game, and Eugenio Saurez could join him. Joey Votto is simply one of the greatest hitters ever. And reliever Michael Lorenzen is out-Ohtani-ing Shohei Ohtani, with three homers already this season in just eight at-bats.
It's not a menacing roster like the Cubs or Brewers or even Cardinals have. But it's certainly gotten the Cubs' attention. And the team that was supposed to rule this division has even the last-place group biting at its heels.
"They've got a lot of confidence right now," pitcher Mike Montgomery said Friday. "We saw it a couple weeks ago when we were at their place. They came out, their starter pitched a great game, and they battled. Their offense puts up good at-bats, and they've got some good players.
"We're not going to take anyone lightly, especially them, especially now how they've shown that they're not afraid to play against us."
The Cubs entered Friday with the second-best winning percentage in the NL, and though consistency has eluded them for much of the season's first half, they've managed to do plenty of winning, stay neck and neck with the Brewers for the division lead and remain a legit World Series contender. It's perfectly reasonable to suggest that once the starting pitching finally comes together - as president Theo Epstein predicted Friday that it will - the Cubs could pull away as the NL's dominant team.
But it appears that the rest of the division is going to have something to say about that and not just the Brewers, also competing for that same title. The Reds and Pirates have been thorns in the Cubs' side this season. The Reds have done their damage recently, and the Pirates had their early success against the Cubs and have won four of the nine head-to-head matchups.
The Cubs are going to have a challenging go of things the rest of the way with their division-mates. That includes the upstart Reds.