CINCINNATI -- What the Reds' lineup did on Thursday afternoon was essentially win a game and a series with one hand tied behind its collective back.
Joey Votto has been missing for weeks. Brandon Phillips has been out for days. Both have injuries. Ryan Ludwick was given a day off to rest. That equaled 46 home runs and 167 RBIs for the season out of the order. And the bench had only three healthy players.
No problem. The Reds still took a 9-4 victory over the Padres to take three of four in the series. There was even a big six-run second inning where 12 batters batted for a 6-0 lead.
"We had a different game -- more of a speed, first-to-third type lineup today than we did with our normal lineup where you have home runs," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "We needed those hits, first-to-third and clutch hits."
It was a series where pitching took a beating for both sides as the Reds outscored San Diego, 27-24, for the four games. On Thursday, ace Johnny Cueto labored in spots -- including a three-run third inning -- and finished with 7 1/3 innings. Cueto, who is tied for the Major League lead with 14 wins, allowed four runs and eight hits with one walk and nine strikeouts.
Heading into what will be the biggest series of the year, vs. the second-place Pirates, the first-place Reds are oozing with momentum. They've won 13 of 14 games and 20 of 23 to improve baseball's best record to 64-41. Cincinnati is also 14-3 since Votto went down with an injured left knee on July 15.
The lead in the National League Central is 3 1/2 games over Pittsburgh, which was idle on Thursday. The Reds and Pirates open a key three-game series Friday night at Great American Ball Park.
"Things are going well right now," Reds catcher Ryan Hanigan said. "Guys are playing loose, taking real aggressive swings on pitches in the zone. Nothing surprises me with what we can do, especially when we're playing like this."
Against Padres starter Ross Ohlendorf, who lasted only 1 2/3 innings, the first five batters hit safely in the second inning. Todd Frazier got the scoring going with a two-run home run to left field, his 13th of the season.
Hanigan hit a drive to right field, where Will Venable crashed hard in an unsuccessful catch attempt as Zack Cozart scored. With two outs and the bases loaded, Jay Bruce's single up the middle scored two more runs. And as Scott Rolen batted, Drew Stubbs scored when Ohlendorf was called for a balk to make it 6-0 as the Reds tied their season high for runs in one inning.
"Any time you have that big inning like that early in the game, you know you're going to get into their bullpen," Baker said.
Similar to the previous three games after the Reds opened leads, San Diego did not shrink quietly and responded with three runs in the third. Eddy Rodriguez's first big league hit was a one-out solo home run off of Cueto -- which snapped an 11-start, 80-inning streak during which he hadn't allowed a homer, the longest in the Majors this season.
Cueto gave up two more singles after the homer, but had a chance to escape. Miguel Cairo, filling in for injured Gold Glove second baseman Brandon Phillips, muffed a would-be double-play grounder and had to settle for one out at first base. Chase Headley followed with a lined single that went through shortstop Zack Cozart's glove and scored two runs.
"He gets out of rhythm a little bit sitting around. Sometimes those eight warmup pitches aren't enough to get back loose again," Baker said. "Johnny will take those runs big time. Anybody will."
In the top of the fourth with one out, Cameron Maybin's solo homer to left field closed the Reds' lead to two runs.
"We just couldn't mount anything past Cam's home run," Padres manager Bud Black said.
Meanwhile, the Reds added insurance with two runs in the fourth and one more in the eighth. After Maybin's homer, Cueto retired 12 of his final 14 batters and received great defensive play from his middle infield. To end the sixth, Cozart made a spectacular diving stop to rob Maybin and flipped to Cairo's bare hand before a one-hop throw to first base for the double play.
"It could have been first and third with one out and who knows what can happen," Baker said. "You've seen they're capable of having a big inning. That was a real big play."
Cueto, who improved to 14-5 with a 2.52 ERA, wasn't overly sharp, but preserved his bullpen for the upcoming series by getting into the eighth. He was worn out from running out an infield single in the seventh and covering first base in the eighth. Logan Ondrusek and Jose Arredondo handled the remaining 1 2/3 scoreless innings.
"You saw him gasping for air. You figure it's a hot day and that's enough," Baker said.
There is no gasping from the collective Reds that seem full of energy heading into the stretch of the season.
"You can see everybody is having fun and doing what they have to do," Frazier said. "You need to know your role. When everybody knows their role, it's fun to watch."