LOS ANGELES -- The Reds want to be more engrossing than any summer blockbuster movie, more compelling than any novel read on the beach.

As schools let out for the summer, the third-place Reds are very much in the hunt to repeat as National League Central champs, but they seem to be treading water more than they're building any sustained momentum. They are only four games over .500, at 37-33, but two games out of first place as of Wednesday night.

"We're better than we're playing, but we haven't been playing badly," right fielder Jay Bruce said. "It's a long season. I think everyone expects more. I think we're going to meet the expectations. It's just a matter of time."

But that time might need to be now, especially if the Reds want to keep contending as they look up at the Cardinals and Brewers.

"We really haven't gotten hot like we hoped and strung [together] 12 of 14 in the win column," shortstop Paul Janish said. "It's a tough stretch that ends with St. Louis and Milwaukee. We're not worried about it. We just have to keep grinding. As a team we're starting to get a little more healthy, and the collective effort has been better of late. Hopefully, it snowballs into a good stretch."

The Reds, who completed a successful 5-2 West Coast road trip with a three-game sweep of the Dodgers, will need to build on that momentum as they face a difficult gauntlet of games before the All-Star break.

Following Thursday's off-day, the Reds play 22 games until the break, 16 of them against teams that have winning records. In addition, Interleague Play returns, and the Reds will play 12 games against the robust American League East.

Cincinnati hasn't been superior against other winning clubs, with a 17-16 record against teams with plus-.500 records.

After this weekend's three-game series with the Blue Jays, the Yankees come to Great American Ball Park for three games starting on Monday. The specter of Derek Jeter's 3,000-hit chase is gone, as he is on the disabled list, but New York's lineup is among the most formidable in baseball.

Following the Yankees series is a road trip to Baltimore, then to St. Petersburg to face a hot Rays team. Then comes part two of the Ohio Cup series vs. the Indians at home. Although the Indians have been sliding, they did sweep the Reds in the three-game series at Cleveland last month.

"This is big," manager Dusty Baker said. "We have to fare better at Interleague [Play]. It's big in the equation, and it's big in the standings."

And just before the All-Star break comes a road trip that could have major ramifications, with three games in St. Louis followed by three in Milwaukee to close the season's first half.

"This is like the end of the first half of a basketball game," Baker said. "You can make up quick ground or lose quick ground. You can hit a three-point shot, steal an inbound pass. I always equate it to basketball. It's not quite time to tell them yet, but I tell them right before the first half ends, [if you] hit a three at the buzzer, [you] start the second half -- bam! You pick up two, three, four, five games in a short period of time."

The Reds have perked up recently due, in large part, to their starting pitching. The rotation, which is ranked 14th in the NL in ERA, has a 1.90 ERA over the last 10 games. In three of the five wins during the road trip, the starters allowed no earned runs.

And this has come without the services of the injured Homer Bailey, who was on a nice roll before going on the disabled list.

After the All-Star break, the Trade Deadline buzz will descend upon baseball. And with their wealth of prospects and depth in several places, the Reds could be active in their attempt to bolster some spots.

Although general manager Walt Jocketty plays his maneuvering close to the vest, and made no deals last summer, he aggressively pursued Cliff Lee before he was dealt to Texas.

Offensively, the Reds lead the NL in runs scored, and are second in hits and fourth in home runs. Reigning NL MVP Joey Votto is among the league leaders in hitting and is seeking a batting title, even though quality pitches in the strike zone have been at a premium with pitchers working around him. Bruce was the NL Player of the Month in May and is among the league leaders in homers and RBIs.

Yet until their sweep of the Dodgers, the Reds hadn't won three games in a row since their five-game streak from May 13-17. And that streak was followed by a season-long six-game losing streak, and a 5-13 stretch that included a 2-8 road trip.

"It's huge, no doubt about it, if we play well though this stretch," Janish said. "It's [huge because of the] teams we're competing with but also in terms of the schedule after that; it's a little bit lighter in terms of strength."

In the second half, the Reds will play only nine games total against the Cardinals and Brewers. Three of those come right after the break, at home vs. the Cardinals from July 15-17.

"We're going to get plenty of chances to control our own destiny," Bruce said. "I have no doubt that we're going to be fine."