CINCINNATI - Cincinnati Reds right-hander Mike Leake says he hasn't changed much since making his major league debut three seasons ago, aside from being stronger and maybe a bit smarter.
But after having to compete for his spot in the starting rotation both in spring training and earlier this season when ace Johnny Cueto went on the disabled list, Leake has added incentive.
"It helps to motivate me a little bit," he said.
On Monday night, Leake allowed just one run on six hits through seven innings, and Todd Frazier, Zack Cozart, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce each hit a solo homer, lifting Cincinnati to a 4-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the opener of a four-game series between National League Central division rivals.
"In my mind, I'm the same pitcher I've always been," said Leake. "I have more knowledge. I'm thinking a little more out there. Maybe a little more mature. This is the best I've felt, I think."
Leake (7-3) has an ERA of 1.15 over his past seven starts, and Cincinnati (43-28) improved to 25-12 at Great American Ball Park, tying the Pirates for the best home mark in baseball.
"Leake has a presence about him now, a confidence," said Frazier, whose 443-foot bomb put the Reds ahead to stay in the sixth. "Coming into this year, he had some doubters. I'm really happy for him."
Leake pitched around trouble Monday night as Pittsburgh (41-29) went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and stranded nine runners. Andrew McCutchen and Russell Martin combined for four of the Pirates' seven hits.
Jordy Mercer led off the third inning with a double but was left stranded. The Pirates had runners on first and second with two outs in the fourth, but Leake got Neil Walker to fly out to right.
Pittsburgh's Starling Marte saved a run in the third when, with Votto on second with two outs, he made a sensational diving grab of Brandon Phillips' line drive for the final out.
Cozart snapped the scoreless tie in the fourth when he launched a 2-2 pitch from Pirates starter Francisco Liriano for a 437-foot home run to left, putting Cincinnati ahead 1-0. It was Cozart's seventh home run of the season.
The Pirates tied the score 1-1 in the sixth on Martin's RBI double. But after Liriano struck out the first two batters he faced in the sixth, Frazier hit a 443-foot homer to left, putting Cincinnati ahead 2-1.
"He tried to get a fastball by me and I hit it pretty hard," Frazier said.
Liriano (5-3) allowed five hits and the two solo homers through six innings. He fanned six and walked two. He had not allowed a homer this season before Monday night.
"I made two mistakes, a hanging slider and a fastball right down the middle," said Liriano. "You can't make those mistakes at this level."
Pittsburgh had the go-ahead run at second base with one out in the seventh, but Leake fanned pinch-hitter Travis Snider before getting Marte to fly to center.
Leake walked one and struck out three over 101 pitches, a lofty total that's no longer a concern for the 25-year old Leake.
"He's getting stronger," said Reds manager Dusty Baker. "We used to watch him at 85 to 90 pitches. Not anymore. He's going about his business."
The Pirates missed their final scoring opportunity in the eighth when left-hander Tony Cingrani, making his first relief appearance this season, fanned Pedro Alvarez to strand the tying run at second.
Cincinnati padded its lead in the eighth when Votto belted his 12th home run and Bruce added his 13th off Pirates right-hander Bryan Morris.
"That hasn't really been a problem with him this season," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Morris. "When you make mistakes against guys in the major leagues, especially in this ballpark, they're going to do damage."
Aroldis Chapman pitched the ninth for his 18th save.
NOTES: Reds RHP Johnny Cueto, who was reinstated from the disabled list prior to Sunday's game and pitched six innings to earn his fourth victory, felt no ill effects Monday. However, Baker remained cautiously optimistic about his ace, who's been on the DL twice this season. "We'll see," said Baker. "We'll probably be able to tell more tomorrow." ... Marte returned to the starting lineup Monday after missing four starts with an oblique injury. He entered Sunday's game as a defensive replacement and went 0-for-2. ... Pirates RF Alex Presley batted second for the first time this season. ... Cincinnati is 11 games into a stretch of 17 straight without an off day. Monday's game also began a 16-game stretch against teams with winning records. The Reds are 28-7 against teams with losing records and 15-21 against clubs .500 or better. ... Monday's game is the first of 10 this season between the Reds and Pirates at Great American Ball Park. They also play there July 19-21 and Sept. 27-29.