CINCINNATI -- Since they hold the largest division lead in the Majors, a fan of another club might refer on Twitter to what the Reds are going through lately as, "#firstplaceproblems."
Johnny Cueto hasn't pitched very well lately, at least by the lofty bar he's set all season. The offense isn't chugging on all cylinders, either. And as the team with baseball's second-best record, the 84-57 Reds lost a 5-1 game on Sunday and two of three in a series to the team with baseball's worst record in the 44-96 Astros.
It marked back-to-back series losses for Cincinnati, which also dropped two of three to Philadelphia. The club has lost only four series since the All-Star break. As for Houston, it hadn't won a road series since beating the White Sox in early June.
"You have these spells in a season. You just hope you time it right and continue to build momentum," Reds first baseman Joey Votto said. "We have one goal in mind. As a unit, we will continue to push towards it. I am confident that we'll continue to work behind the scenes to be a better ballclub when the season ends."
The Reds still hold an 8 1/2 game lead over the second-place Cardinals in the National League Central with 21 games remaining. Their magic number to clinch remained 14, after St. Louis outlasted Milwaukee in extra innings on Sunday.
When the homestand began, Cueto hadn't lost a day game all season. Now, he's lost two in a row after he tied his season's shortest outing with four innings pitched. But a lot was done to him in that limited time. He allowed four runs on nine hits with one walk and six strikeouts.
Foiled in his bid for 18 wins again, Cueto is now 17-8 and with a 2.71 ERA, lost his NL ERA lead to 18-game winner R.A. Dickey (2.64) and possibly some momentum for the NL Cy Young Award.
Cueto came in with a 2.79 ERA over his previous six starts, so it's not exactly a slump that the right-hander is experiencing. He allowed four runs and eight hits over seven innings in Monday's 4-2 loss to the Phillies.
And physically, Cueto is fine, says manager Dusty Baker.
"We talked about that with him before the start," Baker said. "He was throwing the ball well. It was a matter of getting the ball with not very good location. Whenever a guy gets hit hard that's not used to getting hit hard, everybody wants to [see] if something is wrong with him. Sometimes you just have a couple of bad outings. That's what it looks like to me.
"Hopefully, he's not worried about things other than pitching and winning. He's never been this close to 20 [wins] and the Cy Young. There are probably things running through his head. We'll have to have a little sit down conference with him, and get him back to being Johnny Cueto pitching."
Houston notched three straight singles and began the game with the bases loaded and no outs. Cueto escaped with only one run allowed on Fernando Martinez's sacrifice fly before Matt Dominguez grounded into an inning-ending double play.
Cueto gave up a leadoff single in the second inning before retiring the bottom third of the lineup in order. The big trouble came with two outs in the third inning, when Brett Wallace hit a single and Martinez walked. On a 1-0 pitch, Dominguez took Cueto deep to left field for a three-run homer and 4-0 lead.
"It was a high changeup. That's the same guy that hit the three-run home run off of [Aroldis] Chapman [on Friday]," Baker said. "The two games we lost, [Dominguez] was very responsible."
Astros journeyman pitcher Edgar Gonzalez, who was making his second big league start since 2009, held the Reds to only one run and two hits over five innings. Gonzalez retired 10 of his first 11 batters until a Votto walk with one out in the fourth. The next batter, Jay Bruce, laced a triple past diving center fielder Jordan Schafer for the Reds' lone run.
Gonzalez departed before the bottom of the sixth because of a blister on his right foot. The Reds only had three more hits, including two in the ninth.
Cincinnati is 3-5 in September, and has averaged only 2.6 runs per game over those eight games.
"Part of that is we've seen some good young pitching this series -- one pitcher we've never seen before," Baker said. "That's September baseball. A lot of times, the guys that give you trouble are new hitters and new pitchers. We'll be more familiar with the guys we're playing [on Monday]."
The Pirates, after getting swept by the Cubs, head to town for a three-game series.
One positive from the day for the Reds was that lefty prospect Tony Cingrani impressed during his Major League debut in relief of Cueto. Cingrani, a starter and September callup himself from Double-A Pensacola, retired nine of 10 batters over his three innings.
"The one shining light was Cingrani had an excellent outing," Baker said. "It was good to get him in there and get him multiple innings."
Cingrani's lone blemish was Tyler Greene's homer to right-center field with one out in the sixth.
"I was pretty relaxed when I went out there," Cingrani said. "Obviously, I was amped up, but it felt really good to get that out of the way. I just did what I usually do."
Now, the rest of the Reds need to do likewise.