- Associated Press - Monday, July 30, 2012

CINCINNATI — When Joey Votto had knee surgery, the Cincinnati Reds faced a turning point. An offense that had been so-so was going to have to get along without its best hitter for about a month.

How have the Reds responded? With one of the best surges in franchise history.

The Reds had won 10 in a row heading into the start of their series against the San Diego Padres on Monday night at Great American Ball Park, a number that sets them apart. It’s only the eighth time in club history that they’ve won 10 straight.

At 61-40, they’re tied with Washington for best record in the majors. And it hasn’t been a matter of one or two players getting hot.

“Every man on the roster has done an absolutely great job,” outfielder Jay Bruce said. “Everyone understands their role and has embraced it and is doing whatever they can, and it’s really showing.”

The offense has come around without Votto, going 11-2 since an MRI found torn cartilage in his left knee that required surgery. He’s expected to miss about a month overall.

While Votto worked on the leg, the Reds have closed in on the franchise record for wins — 12, shared by the 1939 and 1957 club. They’ve opened a three-game lead over Pittsburgh and a 71/2-game lead over defending World Series champion St. Louis in the NL Central.

The division has turned into a surprising two-team race for now.

“Three games is still a very small margin in the grand scheme of things,” outfielder Drew Stubbs said. “With the way we’ve been playing, we were hoping to have a little more cushion than that. But Pittsburgh is playing outstanding baseball. On the flip side, they’re probably thinking, ‘What do we have to do? We’re trying to make up ground and this team won’t lose.’”

They hadn’t lost since July 18, the day after Votto’s surgery. They swept Milwaukee at Great American, knocking the defending division champs out of contention, then won three at Houston and three more at Colorado.

No one expected that without Votto in the lineup.

“You can dream it, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen,” manager Dusty Baker said. “I dream all the time. You hoped that we could just continue to play well.

“Not taking anything away from the teams we were playing, but it helped that the teams we were playing were struggling. It helps a lot. You can’t time when these things happen.”

The way they’ve done it has been impressive.

The starting rotation has been solid and healthy all season. The Reds are the only team in the majors that has used only five starters to date. The bullpen has overcome the loss of closer Ryan Madson, with Aroldis Chapman becoming nearly unhittable in the ninth inning.

The offense was the most glaring weakness before Votto got hurt, forcing Baker to juggle his lineup to compensate for the loss of the No. 3 hitter. Brandon Phillips moved into the spot in the order and has batted .383 with two homers.

“Everybody has a different role,” Phillips said. “I love my role. It’s a blessing in disguise. I’ve showed everybody I can play this game and hit third.”

He’s not alone. Stubbs has batted .333 with three homers and 13 RBI, earning co-NL Player of the Week honors Monday with Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez. Ryan Ludwick has batted .342 with four homers and 10 RBI. Scott Rolen has batted .306 with two homers.

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