Johnny Cueto was not at his best the last time he took the mound. It still was good enough to keep alive one of the most successful stretches of his career.
For the second time this season, the right-hander can win a career-high fifth consecutive start Thursday when the Cincinnati Reds conclude their four-game set with the San Diego Padres at Great American Ballpark.
Cueto (13-5, 2.39 ERA) allowed five runs and 10 hits in six innings but he still set a career high for single-season wins during Cincinnati's 9-7 victory at Colorado on Saturday.
"He can't throw zeroes up every time, even though he is really good,'' teammate Ryan Ludwick said. "If he's not in the Cy Young talk now, there's something wrong. He's up there.''
Cueto posted a 1.47 ERA while winning four straight starts from June 6-23 before losing consecutive outings at San Francisco and Los Angeles. Since then, he has a 2.55 ERA during his current four-start win streak.
That winning stretch began when he allowed two runs in 5 2-3 innings of a 4-2 win at San Diego on July 8 to improve to 1-2 with a 6.35 ERA in four starts against the Padres.
Ludwick homered and drove in four runs for the second straight night Wednesday to help NL Central-leading Cincinnati (63-41) to a 6-4 victory, its second straight since the Padres snapped its 10-game winning streak in the series opener.
Winners in 19 of 22 overall, the Reds are 13-3 without injured star Joey Votto. Second baseman Brandon Phillips is likely to miss a second consecutive game with a strained left calf.
"With Joey out, it's been different people at different times,'' Ludwick said. "Now, with Phillips out, it's even more important for everybody to pitch in.''
Ludwick has capably stepped up, batting .459 (17 for 37) with five home runs and 17 RBIs in his last 10 games after going 2 for 15 in his previous six.
"Ludwick has been hot over the last three weeks, not just this series,'' San Diego manager Bud Black said. "He's really done well. When a hitter's in a groove like that, he's going to get his hits.''
However, Ludwick is 1 for 8 with four strikeouts versus scheduled San Diego starter Ross Ohlendorf (3-1, 5.05).
After giving up three runs and four hits in six innings of a 4-2 loss at Miami on Saturday, Ohlendorf is 1-1 with a 2.89 ERA in three starts since rejoining the rotation after making two appearances out of the bullpen at the beginning of July.
"I feel good about how I'm throwing,'' Ohlendorf said. "I've pitched well in the past like this, but it's been a while. I feel really good about how I'm pitching now, getting back to where I'm capable.''
The right-hander is 1-3 with a 4.33 ERA in five starts against the Reds, but has not faced them since 2010 with Pittsburgh.
Chase Headley hit a two-run homer and drove in three runs Wednesday for the Padres (44-62), who have dropped four of five. Headley is 7 for 18 (.389) in the last five games, and 5 for 11 with two doubles against Cueto.