CINCINNATI -- The last thing the Reds want from this weekend's series against the second-place Cardinals is to give their distant pursuer hope, or even the slightest opening in the National League Central race.
In the realm of his start on Friday, Reds starter Mat Latos did exactly that. In a sixth inning when Latos didn't cover first base on a ground ball, six Cardinals runs would score for an 8-5 Reds loss at Great American Ball Park. Cincinnati's lead over St. Louis shrunk to six games.
"Mat not covering first base put him in the stretch right away and that was the break that they needed," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "After that, the flood gates opened and they opened quickly."
Latos saw his night unravel for seven earned runs and nine hits over five-plus innings. He walked one and struck out five.
While the series began with more importance for the Cardinals, it's quickly become more pressing for the Reds, especially if they don't take the next two games.
St. Louis has even more incentive to try and narrow its deficit -- there are only five head-to-head games left this season between the two teams.
"We have an opportunity to get them [Saturday] back to where they started," Baker said. "It's a big game for us to win tomorrow. It's a big game for [Mike] Leake."
The Reds, who were 3-for-13 with runners in scoring position and stranded 11 men on base, had chances to take total control of the game early. Their first three batters reached in the two-run first inning that included Brandon Phillips' RBI single off of Cardinals starter Lance Lynn. It ended with a Ryan Ludwick double play and a Jay Bruce strikeout.
It was a 3-1 game when the Reds began the third inning with two hits off of Lynn, who was given the quick hook by Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. Long reliever Joe Kelly took over and would give up Lynn's fourth run on Todd Frazier's one-out RBI single. Scott Rolen scorched a comebacker and reached on a tough error charged to Kelly that loaded the bases. Ryan Hanigan and Latos both struck out to end the threat.
"We could've blown that game open early," Baker said.
Kelly, who struck out six over his three innings, allowed Rolen's RBI double that gave Cincinnati a 5-2 lead in the fifth inning. Later in the inning, the bases were again left loaded when Latos struck out on a high fastball that was likely ball four.
Then everything just went completely wrong for Latos, who could not retire a Cardinals batter in the sixth. He insisted his strikeout in the fifth did not carry over.
"I don't get paid to hit, so I don't really care about that," Latos said. "It was frustrating with the bases loaded both times. I have to go out there the next inning and try to get quick outs."
The St. Louis sixth started with Carlos Beltran bouncing a ball deep in the dirt to first baseman Frazier. Latos was late covering the bag and Beltran had an infield hit.
"I got caught up on the mound. My spike got caught," Latos explained. "I didn't get over in time. You've got a guy with 28 home runs sliding head first into first base."
With Latos forced to pitch from the stretch, Matt Holliday followed Beltran with a single. On a 2-2 pitch, Allen Craig blasted a three-run homer to center field that tied the game. Yadier Molina made it back-to-back homers with his 1-1 drive to right field just out of Bruce's reach. Latos was pulled after walking David Freese, but Alfredo Simon gave up two inherited runs as the Reds suddenly trailed by three.
The six-run inning tied the Reds pitching staff's season high.
"I went from having good fastball command to not," said Latos, who came in unbeaten in six starts since July 18. "That last inning, I looked up and it was 6-5 already. I had command down in the zone early but I made a couple of mistakes and they capitalized on it."
The Cardinals' bullpen sucked the life out of the Reds' bats over the final four innings. At one point, St. Louis struck out five in a row and six out of seven batters. Cincinnati struck out 14 times in the game.
"It was a good day in the bullpen, but you can't overlook what the offense did," Matheny said. "A great at-bat from Allen Craig, and then Yadier, and then just kind of stacking it on. We've seen this offense do that."
Following a nearly 4 1/2-hour game that lasted 11 innings at Philadelphia on Thursday, the Reds didn't get home until the wee hours of the morning Friday.
"We'll be better rested," Baker said. "I could tell our concentration wasn't there tonight with the number of bad pitches that we swung at. We swung at pitches in the dirt. They just beat us. No alibi, no excuse, no nothing. We know they can hit. You certainly can't give them any extra opportunities."