Barring an extremely unlikely collapse of the starting pitching, the Cincinnati Reds will qualify for the post-season.

Frank Victores/USAToday from the Cincinnati Enquirer

Frank Victores/USAToday from the Cincinnati Enquirer

With just 31 games remaining, they hold a 7-game lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks and an 8.5-game lead over the Washington Nationals. Neither the D-Backs or the Nationals have shown they can put together the winning streak necessary to overcome that large of a deficit in such a short time.

If the Reds win just 15 of their 31 remaining games, they’ll finish the season with 89 wins. Arizona would have to finish 23-10 and Washington 24-8 to reach 89 wins. Yes, both of them have relatively easy schedules the rest of the way (the Nats play their next 19 games against the Marlins, Mets and Phillies), but they also have enough tough games to make their odds of catching even yesterday’s listless version of the Reds remote. Cool Standings estimates their chances of doing that 8% and 4% respectively. Baseball Prospectus figures their odds at half that.

So it’s pretty unlikely that the Reds’ regular season finale on September 29 against the Pirates will be their last game.

But simply qualifying for the post-season doesn’t mean what it used to mean. From 1994 to 2011, the wild card team was guaranteed a five-game elimination series. The only post-season disadvantage consisted of an extra game on their opponent’s field. Four times a wild card team won the World Series and reached the World Series five other times.

The post-season rules changed beginning with the 2012 season. Two teams would face each other in a one-game, loser-goes home cage match to determine which team would assume the wild card position in the post-season. Only after winning that nine-innings-long coin flip would a team earn their five-game elimination series. Today, a “wild card” slot is worth less than half of a division championship.

That’s what at stake for Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and company the next month.

The Reds stand 2.5 games behind both St. Louis and Pittsburgh in the NL Central division. They have thirteen games remaining with those two teams, including seven with the Cardinals over the next ten days. Don’t forget the brutal three-game series with the LA Dodgers at GABP the first weekend of September.

The next three games in St. Louis are particularly important. Winning the series won’t cinch the division. But losing it 2-1 or worse would present a steep hill — the next stage being the treacherous high-altitudes of Coors Field, where the Colorado Rockies have a 36-27 record.

We’ll soon find out if the team assembled by Walt Jocketty and managed by Dusty Baker is ready to seriously contend for the NL Central Division and avoid that play-in game.

The stretch run for the Cincinnati Reds starts tonight.