HOUSTON -- It would have been understandable if the Cincinnati Reds, in the middle of a three-team chase for the National League Central pennant, had their attention divided between the action inside the lines and the Minute Maid Park scoreboard in left field.
But with injury-plagued ace right-hander Johnny Cueto back on the mound for the first time since late June, the Reds were intently focused on his performance. And Cueto didn't disappoint, logging five shutout innings in a 6-1 victory over the Houston Astros on Monday night.
While Cueto (5-2) resembled his old self, the Reds (85-66) received offensive production from their usual suspects. First baseman Joey Votto and center fielder Shin-Soo Choo, who rank first and second in the NL in on-base percentage, reached base six times in their 10 plate appearances, going a combined 2-for-6 with four walks and two runs.
Cleanup hitter Jay Bruce finished 2-for-4 with two RBIs and two runs. Shortstop Zack Cozart was 2-for-4 with a two-run homer and four RBIs.
But the story was Cueto.
"We had our fingers crossed," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "We really took him about 10 pitches more than we had wanted to, but Johnny said he felt great. Johnny C. was good for a guy that hasn't been out there very long.
"He was pretty sharp. Had good velocity. Let's hope that he continues to be well, continues to get better (and) his endurance gets better. That's a tremendous shot in the arm for our team. Guys were psyched that he was out there."
The Reds gained a game on the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, who lost to the Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres, respectively.
The Astros (51-99) scratched across a run in the sixth off Reds reliever Alfredo Simon yet inched one defeat closer to their third consecutive 100-loss season. Houston remains four games behind the Miami Marlins, who lost 12-2 to the Philadelphia Phillies, in the race for the worst record in the majors and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft.
"I don't really feel like it's been 100 at this point," Astros first baseman Chris Carter said. "I feel like we've been playing better. It's just looking at the season as how we finish it instead of how we started it as a whole. Just looking to finish strong and keep playing good games. Hopefully that rolls into next year and we have a good season after that."
Cueto, in his first start since making his third trip to the disabled list with a right lat strain June 29, was the beneficiary of early run support.
In particular, Cueto had Cozart to thank. Cozart slugged a two-out, two-run home run off Astros left-hander Erik Bedard (4-11) in the second inning to spot Cueto a 2-0 lead. Cozart added a two-run single to center field -- also with two outs -- in the fourth inning to double the lead.
The Reds added two more runs in the fifth, this time off Astros right-hander Lucas Harrell. Bruce, who scored when Cozart delivered in the second and fourth innings, lined a two-run single to right field after the Reds loaded the bases with one out.
Cueto set the Astros down in order only once during his stint, but allowed only three runners into scoring position. Cueto threw just 82 pitches, giving up five hits and one walk while striking out five batters.
With the bases loaded in the fifth and following a mound visit from Reds pitching coach Brian Price, Cueto struck out Astros second baseman Jose Altuve to end that threat and cap his triumphant return to the rotation.
"Thank God. I feel really good," Cueto said. "I don't have words to describe it. It's something really incredible for me to go that long without pitching and I came in today and feel really good today."
Bedard allowed four runs on four hits and two walks over four innings.
"Early on I was throwing a lot of strikes and just trying to get ahead and getting them out quickly," Bedard said. "I had a quick third, and fourth was a little long. I was just getting tired and gave up a couple of walks."
NOTES: Votto extended his hitting streak at Minute Maid Park to 22 games with a leadoff single in the fourth inning. ... Bedard made his first start since Aug. 21 at Texas against the Rangers. He was 1-0 with a 2.08 ERA in three relief appearances in the interim. ... Astros OF George Springer was one of eight position players named to MLB.com's All Prospect Team. Springer, 23, hit .303/.410/.600 with 37 home runs, 108 RBIs and 45 steals for Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Oklahoma City.