What looked to be a favorable stretch for the Cincinnati Reds has been anything but easy.
The Reds will try to avoid a sixth straight loss Friday when they continue their series against the Chicago Cubs.
After taking two of three last weekend from Pittsburgh - its nearest competitor in the NL Central - to open a 4 1/2-game lead, Cincinnati was swept at Milwaukee before dropping a 5-3 decision in Chicago on Thursday after Alfonso Soriano's tie-breaking, two-run homer in the eighth.
The Reds (66-46) had won 22 of 25 before their current skid. Despite Thursday's loss, they still lead the Pirates by 2 1/2 games.
"I don't think these games should really make a difference," pitcher Mike Leake said. "You're going to have losing streaks. If we're dwelling on this, there's a problem.
"We didn't go 22-3 or whatever it was for no reason."
Cincinnati has scored 11 runs and batted .180 in its five losses. Jay Bruce is hitting .136 with no homers and 11 strikeouts in his last seven games, and manager Dusty Baker said Friday he's giving the slumping outfielder a couple days off.
Xavier Paul is starting this game in place of Bruce. Third baseman Scott Rolen was held out of the lineup for a third straight game due to a sore back.
The bullpen has also faltered the last two games, giving up four runs in three innings while being responsible for both losses.
Cincinnati is looking to improve on its 3-3 record against its lowly NL Central rival, which snapped an eight-game losing streak. The Reds are hitting .205 in the season series against the Cubs (44-66) while scoring three or fewer runs in all three losses.
Despite Chicago's overall record, it has won 14 of 19 at Wrigley Field. Soriano has been a major factor in the Cubs' success there, hitting .328 with five homers and 12 RBIs in his last 15 home games.
"I have to play hard just because those kids see me, and I'm the veteran on the team. So I have to show the kids how to play the game,'' Soriano said.
Looking to avoid their first six-game losing streak since May 18-23, 2011, the Reds hand the ball to Homer Bailey (9-7, 3.98 ERA), who has struggled in his last two starts and is winless in three.
After giving up six runs in 3 2-3 innings against San Diego on July 31, he surrendered four runs and nine hits in 4 2-3 innings of a 6-2 loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday.
"I don't think it was anything physical, I don't feel tired at all," Bailey told the Reds' official website. "Just execution of pitches, that's all it was."
The right-hander is 3-2 with a 5.60 ERA against the Cubs, but 1-0 with a 2.77 ERA in two outings this year.
Starlin Castro, who drove in two runs Thursday, is 4 for 13 with two homers against Bailey.
The Cubs counter Bailey with Justin Germano (1-1, 3.38), who will make his third start. The right-hander gave up two runs and three hits in 5 1-3 innings of a 7-6 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday without factoring in the decision.
Germano's only outing against the Reds came in 2007 with San Diego. He went 5 1-3 innings, giving up one run in an 8-3 loss.