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CIN@CHC: Willis strikes out eight over seven frames

Neither the Cubs nor Reds are fighting for a playoff spot as the second full week of September kicks off on Monday, but both will trot out a pair of back-to-the-future starters in their series opener at Great American Ball Park.

Dontrelle Willis has made 11 starts with the Reds this season, as he tries to resurrect a career that appeared full of hope when he won 22 games in 2005, yet has run into road blocks since. Having spent parts of the last four seasons trying to fight to stay in the Majors, Willis hasn't pitched all that poorly with the Reds, though he's yet to pick up a win (0-5).

Willis has shown the strikeout numbers that glimmer with potential, including his start last week, also coming against the Cubs, when he fanned eight batters over seven innings. But he also allowed four runs on five walks and six hits to pick up the loss.

"It's frustrating, because I've pitched worse and won," said Willis, whose ERA sits at 4.21. "By the same token, I like the way me and [catcher Devin] Mesoraco worked out there, especially for his first start. This is my 200th big league start, so I am happy to have that longevity. I will continue to battle and fight, and hopefully I will get one [win] and then [more] in bunches."

"That was the Dontrelle that I knew," Reds manager Dusty Baker said of the former All-Star. "Boy, he was throwing strikes. He had great command of everything."

On the other side, Baker's former team will send 35-year-old veteran Rodrigo Lopez to the hill. Lopez spent all of last year with the Diamondbacks, posting a 5.00 ERA over 200 innings, though he's tried to turn things around in his first stint with the Cubs, a stint in which he's 4-6 with a 4.82 ERA over 23 games split between the bullpen and rotation.

After serving up 37 homers a season ago, Lopez has run into similar problems this season, having allowed seven long balls over his last four starts. Even more importantly to him, Lopez will try to go at least six innings for just the second time in his last eight starts.

"It's starting to get in my head," Lopez said in late August. "I want to go far in the game and help my team win and get some wins for the Cubs. I have to keep working and get it out of my head and worry about making good pitches."

Reds: Phillips the answer in the top spot?
Since moving to the top of the order on Aug. 17, second baseman Brandon Phillips has hit safely in 21 of 23 games, stroking .354 (35-for-99). Baker said the experiment has been a good one so far, but he's not committing to Phillips future in the leadoff spot just yet.

Phillips is wrapping up a four-year, $27-million contract, but the Reds hold a $12-million option for 2012 that they're expected to exercise.

Drew Stubbs was back in the leadoff spot Sunday and was 0-for-3 with a strikeout. He's hit .254 with 130 strikeouts and 43 walks in 401 at-bats out of the top spot this season.

Cubs: LeMahieu gets another shot
DJ LeMahieu didn't get much of a chance his first time up with the Cubs earlier this season, hitting .243 (9-for-37) with nine strikeouts and no walks before being sent back down to the Minor Leagues. But he returned to Triple-A Iowa and smacked .286, playing second, third and short, and earned himself a September promotion.

"I think he's capable of doing anything asked defensively from those positions," said manager Mike Quade. "I think it will be determined by his offensive ability and progress and what the makeup of the club is. ... He just needs to keep doing what he's doing."

Worth noting
• Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro entered Sunday tied for second in the Majors with a .332 average out of the leadoff spot this year, while he leads the Majors with a .335 average in the two-hole. After going 1-for-7 in Sunday night's game with the Mets, Castro extended his current hit streak to 12 games.

• With 37 steals this season, Stubbs is trying to become the first Reds player to swipe 40 bags since Deion Sanders had 56 in 1997.

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