The Cincinnati Reds are like a racehorse stalking a front-runner. As the baseball season hits its final month, the Reds entered play Monday just a game behind the Nationals for the sport's best record.

That's not a bad spot to be considering Cincinnati hasn't had its best hitter since July 15. While Washington can lament the absence of Ian Desmond or Jayson Werth or Michael Morse for long stretches this season, the fact is none of those players has the offensive impact of first baseman Joey Votto.

The 2010 National League MVP is hitting .342 with 14 homers and 49 RBIs but has played in only three games since the All-Star break. No Nats batter has close to a .900 OPS -- let alone Votto's absurd 1.069 OPS. And he is making progress toward a return at the perfect time. Votto, who needed two surgeries on his left knee this summer, will make his first rehab appearance with Single-A Dayton on Tuesday.

Cincinnati was 27-14 after Votto left the lineup entering Monday's game at Arizona. And while their bandbox of a home ballpark helps, the Reds still rank sixth in the NL in runs scored even without Votto and eighth among all major league teams in OPS (.748). Losing two of three over the weekend to St. Louis trimmed their NL Central lead to six games. But Cincinnati also has six games over the next two weeks against woeful Houston to fatten up for the home stretch. The schedule includes upcoming series against below-.500 clubs like the Cubs, Brewers, Phillies and Marlins to help keep the Cardinals at bay before the two teams meet for the final three games of the regular season in St. Louis.

- Brian McNally