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STL@HOU: Garcia fans five over seven scoreless frames

Reds manager Dusty Baker has missed some of the most exciting moments of his club's season the past couple weeks.

The 63-year-old skipper left the Reds on Sept. 19 in Chicago and was treated for an irregular heartbeat before suffering a minor stroke as he was being discharged.

He wasn't there to watch his club clinch the National League Central with a win over the Dodgers. He missed the thrilling walk-off win in the final regular-season game at Great American Ball Park. He watched from home as Homer Bailey twirled a no-hitter against the Pirates on Friday.

But just because Baker hasn't been physically present doesn't mean he hasn't been a part of the club.

"He actually had the lineups for the last three days, three days ago, because that's Dusty," said bench coach and acting manager Chris Speier.

Baker made it back to Cincinnati on Sept. 23 and is set to return to his managerial duties Monday in St. Louis for the final three games of the regular season.

"I think everybody has to understand I'm following suit here," said Speier, who is 10-4 as Reds interim manager. "It hasn't been easy to take over something [with] the mainstay of this organization going through what he went through. There's a definite cloud over it because we're worried about him. We're really, really happy he will be in St. Louis."

It won't exactly be a cake walk when Baker returns. While the Reds have already secured their spot in the postseason, this final three-game stint will have significant playoff implications.

The Reds are tied with the Nationals for the top seed in the National League, while the Cardinals' magic number sits at two to clinch the second Wild Card spot after they beat the Nationals, 10-4, on Sunday to win the series. The Cards could clinch a playoff spot as early as Monday.

"I'm having a blast," said Cardinals rookie infielder Pete Kozma. "We're in a playoff race."

St. Louis will send a hot Jaime Garcia to the mound Monday after he's made three straight quality starts, including his most recent outing in which he shut out the Astros through seven innings, holding them to six hits.

"It's definitely one of my best games of the year when you talk about command," said Garcia (6-7, 3.99 ERA). "When I go out now, all I'm worried about is making one pitch at a time and helping my team win."

He'll take on veteran Reds righty Bronson Arroyo (12-9, 3.70 ERA), who has dropped two of his past three starts.

Reds: Ludwick ready to return to lineup
Barring another setback, left fielder Ryan Ludwick should return to the Reds' lineup Monday.

Ludwick, who has been out since Sept. 19 with tightness in his left groin, was a late scratch from Sunday's original starting lineup due to a slick surface after morning showers in Pittsburgh.

The first-year Red came on to pinch-hit in Saturday's contest and lined a double into left field. He hit another pinch-hit double in the ninth inning on Sunday, helping the Reds rally past the Pirates, 4-3. He's hitting .279 with 26 homers and 80 RBIs on the year and assured he would be back to action soon.

"There's no doubt in my mind I will be ready to go," Ludwick said. "It's how much do I need and what's smart? The main goal is to be ready for the playoffs. There is no doubt in my mind that I'm ready for it."

• With Sunday's win, the Reds clinched home-field advantage for the first round of the playoffs. Due to tiebreaker rules, the Reds would need to finish ahead of the Nationals by a full game to claim the No. 1 seed.

Cardinals: Club likely to continue without Furcal
Third baseman David Freese returned to the Cardinals' starting lineup Sunday, and he made his presence felt.

Freese, who suffered a mild right ankle sprain last Monday in Houston, made his first appearance Saturday since the injury, drawing a pinch-hit walk. He doubled that showing in his first start back, drawing two walks and scoring twice Sunday.

"It's just a little hiccup," Freese said of the ankle sprain.

Freese is hitting .294 with 20 homers and 79 RBIs this season.

• It's not looking promising that Rafael Furcal will join the Cardinals on their postseason push this year.

Furcal is still recovering from right elbow surgery and has not resumed throwing since the injury, suffered Aug. 30.

"I wish I could try something and feel good," said Furcal, who is planning another visit with doctors this week to discuss his progress. "I'm bored."

Furcal said he has trouble getting full extension in his arm, but he is hopeful that surgery will not be required.

Worth noting
• The Reds (96-63) have won 96 games for the 11th time, and for the first time since 1999.

• The Cardinals are set to start Garcia on Monday and Chris Carpenter on Tuesday, but depending on how the playoff race unfolds, Wednesday's starter is still up in the air. Adam Wainwright is next in the rotation, but if the Cardinals have clinched a postseason berth by then, they may go a different route to save Wainwright for Friday's Wild Card game or Game 1 of the NLDS.

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