Stretchin’ The Lead

Published 3:19 am Tuesday, August 31, 2010

CINCINNATI — Jay Bruce started it with a homer and ended it with a hit that put a little more distance in the NL Central race.

Win by win, the Cincinnati Reds are pulling away.

Bruce led off the first inning with a homer and singled off Trevor Hoffman with two outs in the 10th inning Monday night, rallying the Reds to a 5-4 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers that extended their lead to a season-high six games over St. Louis.

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Cincinnati hasn’t led the division by so many games since 1995, the last time it reached the playoffs. It helps that the defending-champion Cardinals are melting down — a 3-0 loss at Houston on Monday night was their sixth in seven games.

How are the young Reds responding? With one of their best surges of the season.

“You know those guys aren’t worried about six games,” Bruce said. “It’s going to be a battle until the end. That’s what we expect.”

Since getting swept by the Cardinals in early August, the Reds have taken control by winning 12 of 16. At 76-55, the Reds are 21 games above .500 for the first time since 1999, when they lost a one-game playoff to the Mets for the NL wild card.

They’ve been winning games every which way.

Hoffman (2-7) walked Ryan Hanigan to open the 10th. Pinch-runner Brandon Phillips stopped at second on Chris Heisey’s two-out single. Bruce then singled through the hole at shortstop to end it, with Phillips sliding home well ahead of the throw.

Francisco Cordero (5-4) gave up a single in the 10th.

Bruce also opened the Reds’ first with his eighth homer in his last 16 games. Joey Votto doubled home a run, extending his hitting streak to nine games. Juan Francisco tied it at 4 in the sixth inning with a pinch-hit, solo homer off Mike McClendon.

The Reds wasted chances to pull away early.

Brewers left-hander Randy Wolf struggled with his control, walking five batters and hitting another in his five innings. The Reds hit into four double plays to scuttle threats, including one with the bases loaded in the fifth.

“Some days, you just feel dead,” Wolf said. “Fortunately, I’ll only have a few of those during the year. Today just happened to be one of those days.”

Cincinnati also had some bad moments on the bases, getting runners thrown out at second, at third and at the plate after a rundown.

“That felt like the Twilight Zone,” manager Dusty Baker said. “In a championship season, you can’t make those kinds of mistakes. You just hope they fight through them and learn from them.”

The Brewers stole a season-high four bases — three in one inning — off right-hander Homer Bailey, who lasted six innings. Casey McGehee had a run-scoring double for his 28th RBI in August, the most in the majors.

Wolf made Brewers history in the third inning, becoming the franchise’s first pitcher to steal a base.

“That’s crazy,” said Wolf, who saw that Bailey wasn’t paying much attention to him and took off. “So does that mean I’m going to have a bobblehead?”

It was one of three steals during the two-run inning — Rickie Weeks and Ryan Braun also stole, though Braun was then picked off second.

“I wouldn’t call tonight’s game a clinic on base running — either side,” Brewers manager Ken Macha said.

Brewers center fielder Lorenzo Cain made a sensational play to steal a hit in the sixth, slamming full-speed into the wall in left-center field to catch Ryan Hanigan’s fly. Cain stayed on his back for a few minutes to catch his breath, but remained in the game.

The Reds decided before the game to add a little sizzle to their bullpen for the rest of the series. They’ll call up left-hander Aroldis Chapman before Tuesday’s game, introducing his 105 mph fastball to the majors. The 22-year-old Cuban defector signed a six-year, $30.25 million deal in January.

NOTES: Only 14,589 fans bought tickets, the Reds’ smallest crowd since June 8. … Wolf’s steal was the second of his career. He also swiped a base last season with Los Angeles. … Francisco’s homer was the second of his career. … RHP Aaron Harang will be activated off the DL and start Tuesday’s game. Harang has been sidelined since July 6 by back spasms. … Phillips was out of the lineup for the fourth straight game with a bruised right hand, hit by a pitch. He declined to talk about his hand it before the game.