CINCINNATI – The defending NL Central champions have opened the season playing like they belong in first place.
And, maybe more.
The Cincinnati Reds swept their opening series against the Milwaukee Brewers, considered one of their top challengers in the division. The Reds and the Philadelphia Phillies — the team that swept them in the first round of the playoffs — were the league's only unbeaten teams left on Monday.
A win at home over Houston on Tuesday night would give the Reds their first 4-0 start since 1990, when they led their division wire-to-wire and won their last World Series championship. It would also continue their domination of NL Central rivals.
The Reds made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years by beating up on the rest of the NL's weakest division. They went 49-30 against the Central, posting winning records against everyone except the Cardinals.
They're at it again.
"Whoever we play against, it's very important," second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "We've got to try to get as many wins as possible because we're not trying to wait until the last minute to try to clinch something. Of course, it's important to beat teams in our division."
Phillips isn't the only one thinking about clinching so soon.
The Reds started winning back fans with their playoff push last season, and it's carrying over. They drew only 1.7 million fans in 2009, their smallest gate since 1986. That increased by more than 300,000 last year, when the Reds surprised everyone by pulling away from the division.
They packed them in for the first series at Great American Ball Park despite nasty weather. The Reds didn't disappoint, winning opening day on Ramon Hernandez's two-out, three-run homer in the ninth. They then finished the sweep.
"Honestly, I think it does more for the city than it does for us," said Phillips, who had a three-run homer on Sunday. "It just shows the city, lets them know that we're here, we're going to do this again, and y'all just better make sure you keep coming out here to support us because we really need them.
"I think it means more to the city because we know what we can do and what we're going to do."
The Reds brought their championship team back virtually intact, spending more than $150 million in the offseason to lock up young players for years to come. They ran into problems in spring training, when starters Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey were disabled by shoulder problems and starter Bronson Arroyo came down with mononucleosis.
So far, no problems. Left-hander Travis Wood took Bailey's spot in the rotation and beat the Brewers in the second game. Arroyo, who has lost eight pounds and loses energy on the mound, went seven innings to complete the sweep.
The Brewers became a trendy pick to overtake the Reds after they acquired starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum in the offseason. Greinke is out with a cracked rib, and the Reds got to Marcum early while winning the second game of the series.
Brewers pitchers walked 13 during the series. By contrast, the Reds walked only five batters, two of them intentionally.
"Ever since the walk-off home run, the momentum has been in our favor," said catcher Ryan Hanigan, who had a pair of homers on Sunday. "I think we rode that in the last two games. Once we got rolling, we kept pressing. We know this team is capable of scoring five or six runs in a hurry."
The third game showed them at their best, piling up 19 hits — the most they had in any game last season — and four homers. Twelve different players had at least one hit.
"Everybody contributed," manager Dusty Baker said. "It can be contagious. It was just a big weekend, and to go 3-0 against a team you know is going to be there at the end is big. But there's still a long way to go."
The Reds have a favorable schedule as they wait for Cueto and Bailey to get back. They have six games against Arizona, four against Pittsburgh, three against Houston and three against San Diego in the next 17 days.
And the confidence from that division title seems to be carrying over.
"To tell you the truth, we know what we're capable of doing," Phillips said. "We know we can go out there and win. We know we can win key games. Right now, we know what everybody on our team can do. That's why we're gelling right now."