Reds Keep Rolling

Friday provided no rest for the Reds. Fresh off a series win over division rival St. Louis they opened up a home series against division-leading LA. Mike Leake overcame a rocky start, Joey Votto snapped out of a slump, and Aroldis Chapman continued his dominance out of the pen as Cincinnati brought down a close win and cut a game off their deficit behind division-leading Pittsburgh.

The pennant stretch continues for Cincinnati and right after a series win over St. Louis they opened up a three game set against division-leading Los Angeles at Great American Ball Park Friday. They got a leg up on winning another series with a 3-2 win over the red-hot Dodgers. The Cardinals rebounded by winning a slugfest over division-leading Pittsburgh and now the Reds find themselves two games out of first place and a game and a half behind second place St. Louis.

Mike Leake overcame a rocky start with a two-run home run to Hanley Ramirez in the first inning. After that a bunt single and another hit by Ramirez that was erased when he was caught stealing were the only two base-runners he allowed against the next 22 batters. He finished with the win for allowing two runs on five hits over seven and two-thirds innings while striking out five without a walk. Manny Parra retired the only batter he faced to end the eighth to set things up for Aroldis Chapman. The Cuban Missile entered for the fourth consecutive game and quickly squashed any notions of fatigue by once again consistently popping triple digits on the radar. He overpowered the heart of the potent Dodger lineup by striking out all three batters faced with thirteen pitches for the save.

Offensively Joey Votto broke out of a slump when he led off the fourth inning with a single and eventually scored on a double play to cut the Reds deficit in half. He delivered the Reds' biggest blow of the night with a two-run homer the next frame to give his team a win and set the final score. Votto finished with two of his team's seven hits while Shin-soo Choo and Jay Bruce reached safely twice with a hit plus a walk each. Leake helped himself out with a walk. He was cut down on a fielder's choice, but that left Choo on board for the Votto homer. Billy Hamilton once again made a pinch-running appearance and once again stole a base. He did get caught off third in a freak double play when Brian Wilson gloved a hot liner back to the mound to help the Dodgers out of a no-out/bases-loaded threat in the eighth.

The Reds are getting hot at the right time, winning 18 of their last 29 since an embarrassing loss to St. Louis one month ago. 35 year-old Ryan Ludwick is working to get his bat back to midseason form after missing most of the season with a serious shoulder injury suffered on opening day. Manager Dusty Baker is now hitting him fifth and the Reds finally have the regular lineup available that they've planned since opening day. Comments from the front office indicated a lot of excitement to see Brandon Phillips take his bat to the second spot between new leadoff hitter Choo and former MVP Votto. Ludwick's injury pulled him back into the cleanup spot and he responded by cracking the 100 RBI total for the first time in his career. Since moving back to the two-hole nine games ago he's hit .315/.381 OB with two homers.

When Phillips was moved out of the cleanup spot Jay Bruce was moved into it. Baker has long been reluctant to hit him behind Votto to avoid vulnerability against a lefty specialist facing both in late-inning situations. He might not like the exposure, but he can probably live with the results as the Reds have won six of nine and averaged around five and a half runs per game. Overall Cincinnati has crossed the plate 4.4 times per game this season which is the third highest rate in the NL.

This is a pennant race and opportunities for a break are few and far between. The tough Dodger team will run former Cy Young winner Zach Grienke out to the mound on Saturday as they try to even the series. The Reds will counter with Mat Latos. Perhaps Latos has been their "de facto" ace since the injury to Johnny Cueto, but he's not let any technicalities like that prevent him from pitching like a true number one/top rotation man. The big right-hander's ERA has taken a nosedive since the beginning of August from a sub-two ernie over his last six starts. He's finishing up a solid 2013 season and will enter the game 14-5/2.98.

Even though the Reds have an eight-game stronghold on the final wild card spot, there is real urgency now on every game. Competition is tough atop the NL Central and no one wants to travel to an opponent's home field for a single game to keep their season alive. Actually defending home field in a one-and-done is not a preferred scenario either. The Reds are now on the outside looking in, but they closed the gap last night and overcoming a two-game deficit is definitely in the realm of possibility with twenty games remaining. The prize is a coveted division championship which would be the Reds' third in the past four years. Complicating things is the presence of a third team in the mix which creates further pressure each time they take the field. There figures to be plenty of excitement on tap for the fans of all three teams, just like what a pennant stretch is supposed to have.

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