As the youthful Cincinnati Reds surprisingly roll to what would be their first National League Central Division title in 15 years, general manager Walt Jocketty admits, "I guess maybe we're a little ahead of schedule. But it's hard to tell when you've got a younger club."
This is to say that with youth, sometimes timetables are immaterial.
"We felt we had a good club that would be competitive," said Jocketty. "But it's come together fast."
So fast that, after the Reds' 6-1 thumping of the Cardinals at Busch Stadium on Saturday, we have a legitimate magic number for the Reds. It is 21, as in combination of Reds victories and Cardinals losses, before the Reds would clinch the division crown.
The Reds will leave town after Sunday's game no worse than seven games ahead of the presumably pursuing Cardinals, and they possibly could be nine games ahead.
Former Cardinals star Jim Edmonds has been with the Reds only a couple of weeks after coming from Milwaukee, and his regular season — probably his last one, said Edmonds — may be over after he suffered a serious strain in his right side. So, while not playing, Edmonds has had plenty of time to observe the emerging Reds club.
"Relentless," said Edmonds. "Similar to the Cardinals' teams when we were younger."
The Reds basically needed just one win in the three games this weekend to effectively fend off the Cardinals, although manager Dusty Baker didn't look at it that way.
"I don't think like that," he said. "Some other people told me that. One's better than nothing, at this point. But I wasn't thinking about winning one. I was thinking about winning three. Now, we're thinking about winning two."
That the Reds have won one was due largely to the work Saturday of 23-year-old lefthander Travis Wood, the much less publicized of the Reds' two southpaw rookies.
Twenty-two-year-old Cuban Aroldis Chapman made his Busch Stadium debut and drew gasps from the crowd when his radar gun speeds were posted at 103 miles per hour, 102, 101 and 100 with his fastball.
But Chapman pitched one inning, getting Albert Pujols to hit into a double play to end it. Wood pitched seven innings, giving the Cardinals their only run in the first when he threw wildly on a pickoff at first base.
Wood did more than pitch. He laid down two sacrifice bunts, perhaps even beating one of them out, and hit his first home run as his parents, who are from Arkansas, watched from the stands.
The ball was deflected back onto the field and Wood briefly stopped at second, not knowing for sure it was a home run until the umpire's signal was confirmed.
"I was in unchartered waters," admitted Wood.
Baker, who thought Wood, flying down the line at top speed, was safe on his bunt attempt, said, "All he knows is all out. I've seen the guy almost fall over the rail at our place trying to get a foul ball. There's going to be a time when he's going to conserve his energy, too, but when you're young and full of it, why conserve it?"
Without key lefthanded hitters in Jay Bruce, Edmonds and Laynce Nix, all out with various injuries, Baker is interested — and concerned — to see how his team fares in a litmus-type stretch in which it will run the gantlet against some of the best pitchers in the National League.
First, it was the Cardinals' Jaime Garcia, who beat them 3-2 on Friday. Then it was the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright, whom the Reds touched for three unearned runs in the first inning and chased after five innings Saturday.
Next up for the Reds on Sunday is the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter, and then Colorado's Ubaldo Jiminez on Monday in Denver.
In the space of four days, then, the Reds are facing the pitchers ranked No. 6, 5, 9 and 7 in the National League in earned run average. That foursome has a 61-27 record. And the highest ERA in the group is 2.92 by Carpenter.
"So we're 1-1," said Baker. "Today was a huge win. You don't want to go into tomorrow facing Carpenter, down 0-2 in the series, and lose another game in the standings."
Baker isn't surprised that his team is facing the aforementioned four pitchers in succession. "That's what happens when you're at the top or close to the top," said Baker.
"This is how the playoffs are. You're going to see the best every day."
Consequently, Baker said before Saturday's game that his team needed to be at its best and not make mistakes as it did in Friday's loss here.
"You've got to play better fundamental ball in close games," he said. "You've got to move runners over, get them in, play better defense. All these things show up big-time down the stretch and in the playoffs."
The season has four weeks and a day to run.
So to Reds star Joey Votto, there is no playoff-atmosphere just yet, even though the Busch Stadium crowd eagerly provoked that vibe the first day but had to mostly sit on its hands on Saturday.
"This isn't a playoff atmosphere," said Votto. "It's just an important September series.
"It doesn't feel like a playoff series because we're quite a few games up in our division. It's not necessarily an 'our backs are against the wall' situation.
"On top of that, I don't know what a playoff atmosphere is. I've never been there. That's why it's unfair for me to comment.