One of the biggest reasons the Cincinnati Reds are atop the NL Central is their strong and reliable starting pitching.
Their best starting pitcher will get the ball for the opener of Saturday's day-night doubleheader with the Chicago Cubs, but in the nightcap their staff's extraordinary run of durability will come to an end.
Cincinnati (72-47) owns the majors' third-lowest staff ERA at 3.36, and has managed to use only five starting pitchers all season. The anchor of the rotation, Johnny Cueto (15-6, 2.45 ERA) is slated to start Saturday's opener.
That decision seems like a good one considering Cueto leads the majors with 10 day-game victories against no losses, and his 1.55 day ERA is the lowest among major leaguers with at least 43 innings pitched under the sun.
Going with Cueto may also save the bullpen for the second game. The right-hander went eight innings at Wrigley Field on Sunday, yielding three hits and two walks in a 3-0 win, his sixth victory in seven starts. He has a 0.63 ERA in two starts against the Cubs (46-71) this year, winning both.
"He has a heck of an idea what he's doing and he's as tough as anybody I've ever had on my team," manager Dusty Baker said.
After Cueto starts the opener, though, the Reds' streak of 120 games using only five starting pitchers - a modern franchise record - will conclude. Todd Redmond is scheduled to be recalled from Triple-A Louisville to make his major league debut in the second game.
The 27-year-old right-hander, acquired from Atlanta on July 14, has gone 2-3 with a 3.41 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 29 innings over five games for Louisville.
The Reds, who are six games up on second-place Pittsburgh in the Central, picked up right where they left off after taking three of four in Chicago last week, winning Friday series opener 7-3. Ryan Ludwick and Todd Frazier were the biggest catalysts to Cincinnati's success at Wrigley, and each homered at home Friday.
Ludwick is batting .400 with three home runs, two doubles and seven RBIs in the Reds' last five games versus Chicago, while Frazier is hitting .579 with two homers and eight RBIs.
Jay Bruce added his team-leading 25th homer Friday, giving him four in his last five games.
The Reds have won six of seven overall, and are a major league-best 28-9 since July 6.
"Usually, we've had big slides in the second half, and that's taken the wind out of our sails,'' Friday's winner Bronson Arroyo said. "This year, we feel like the ball's always rolling in your direction.''
The Cubs, meanwhile, are a major league-worst 3-13 since July 31.
Starlin Castro has hit safely in eight of nine games, batting .353 in that stretch, but is 4 for 21 lifetime against Cueto.
Cueto will be opposed by Jeff Samardzija (8-10, 4.06), who matched a career best with 11 strikeouts in Monday's victory over Houston.
Samardzija has allowed one run and four hits over seven innings in each of his last two starts, and has permitted two runs or fewer in five of six outings since the All-Star break.
In his lone start against Cincinnati on May 2, the right-hander gave up one run and three hits while striking out seven in 7 2-3 innings of a 3-1 win.
In the nightcap, Brooks Raley (0-2, 9.00) is expected to make his third career start - and second straight against the Reds.
Raley was knocked around for seven runs in four innings of a 7-4 loss to San Diego on Aug. 7, but bounced back nicely in the loss to Cueto and Cincinnati on Sunday, yielding three runs in six innings. The runs came on a two-run homer by Bruce in the fifth and a solo shot by Ludwick in the sixth.