The Cincinnati Reds have been nearly unbeatable for the last month, but only now do they have a chance to create some breathing room in the division race.
The Reds look to further extend their lead atop the NL Central on Saturday night when they continue their series against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Cincinnati has built the best record in the majors with an impressive run over the last month. The Reds (65-41) improved to 21-3 since July 6 with Friday’s 3-0 win and are 24 games over .500 for the first time since 1999.
Mat Latos gave up four hits while pitching into the eighth inning, and he helped his own cause with a two-run homer in the fifth. Chris Heisey opened the scoring with an inside-the-park home run in the second.
“It was Latos’ night, hitting and pitching,” manager Dusty Baker said.
The Reds have gained 6 1/2 games on the Pirates (60-45) during their surge, moving a season-high 4 1/2 games in front of them atop the division. Looking to extend that lead, the Reds will have some additional help in their lineup.
Second baseman Brandon Phillips, who has missed the last three games with a strained left calf, should start Saturday, while Jay Bruce is also expected back in the starting lineup after Baker opted to play matchups against Wandy Rodriguez.
Bruce has enjoyed success against Pirates starter James McDonald (10-5, 3.38 ERA), going 6 for 16 with a homer, triple and a double against the right-hander.
Phillips, who is hitting .384 with 15 RBIs over his last 19 games, is 6 for 18 against McDonald.
Pittsburgh wasn’t dwelling on the missed opportunity to cut into the deficit. While the Reds have been baseball’s best team of late, the Pirates have won 11 of 16 even with Friday’s defeat.
“I’m not happy that we lost but this is a great experience for us,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “We played the hottest team in baseball at their home park in front of a sellout crowd. It is what you need to do to take the next step. The next step is to win.”
McDonald will try to help the Pirates avoid another defeat, although he has lost his last two starts and has given up at least five runs in each of the last four. In five innings against Houston on Sunday, he allowed five runs and walked a career-high seven in a 9-5 loss.
“The last couple outings have been rough,” McDonald said. “I think every year I’ve pitched, I’ve been in the same situation where you have to fight your way out of a couple of rough starts. I’ve got some work ahead of me.”
McDonald has been sharp in two starts versus the Reds this season. Over those outings - both at home in May - he gave up one run and 11 hits in 14 1-3 innings. He is 5-1 with a 2.31 ERA in 10 appearances - seven starts - in his career against Cincinnati.
Mike Leake (4-7, 4.44) looks to leave a shaky end to July behind as he gets the ball for the Reds.
Leake allowed five runs, five hits and three walks in 1 2-3 innings of an 11-5 loss to San Diego on Monday. It was the second time in four starts he gave up at least five runs. In the other two, he surrendered two runs in each.
The right-hander is winless in two starts against the Pirates this year, going 0-1 with a 4.50 ERA and losing to McDonald in May. He went seven innings in each.