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Rolen helping to turn Reds into contender

Scott Rolen kicked the words around in his head for a few moments, smiled slightly and finally said, "Well, that was nice of him."

The Reds third baseman, a six-time All-Star (including 2010) and seven-time Gold Glove winner, had just been told that fellow All-Star Brandon Phillips said he and his younger teammates look to Rolen as a leader.

"I don't see the world that way, necessarily," said Rolen, who's hitting .301 with 17 homers and 57 RBIs. "I have my hands full trying to play and keep my head above water. The word 'leadership' is thrown around frequently, I don't think fairly sometimes. I just come here and try to do things right."

But the 15-year veteran's presence has helped to transform a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since 1995 into a club with realistic October aspirations. After last night's 8-6 win over the Mets, the Reds lead the second-place Cardinals by two games in the NL Central.

The Reds were 45-57 last year at the time of the trade that plucked Rolen from Toronto. They went 33-27 afterward, including 18-9 in September.

"When we added Rolen last year at midseason and saw the results that he provided in the last 40 games, we felt like we just needed to do a couple of little things," general manager Walt Jocketty said.

Their biggest offseason move was signing coveted Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman to a six-year, $30.25-million deal. In February, the Reds brought back leftfielder Jonny Gomes and added shortstop Orlando Cabrera.

Considering Chapman hasn't thrown a pitch in the majors and Cabrera and Gomes signed for a combined $4 million guaranteed, Jocketty's "little things" description sounds about right.

Then the season began and big things started happening.

The Reds haven't had a losing month and have spent 36 of the last 49 days in first place or tied for first. They lead the majors with 26 come-from-behind wins, have seven extra-inning victories and are tied with Atlanta with 15 wins in the last at-bat.

"In years past, we had a decent first half and then things just fell apart," pitcher Bronson Arroyo said. "We never had a club that could dig ourselves out of a ditch. The team we have now, we can come back from deficits. We never feel like we're out of a ballgame. We can win big games late, and that's due to the fact that you've got guys who are consistently giving you day in and day out quality at-bats and quality innings."

Third-year manager Dusty Baker, who spent 19 seasons as a player and is in his 17th as a skipper, had a simpler explanation for how his club improved.

"We have more talent," he said. "Talent prevails."

But then Baker thought of the other thing that tends to prevail over the course of a season, something his club has been lucky with: injuries.

Baker superstitiously knocked on the wooden desk in front of him and said: "We've got a long way to go."

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