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CIN@CHC: Berken strikes out four batters in one frame

CHICAGO -- Jason Berken didn't get a win, but he got in the Cubs record books.

Didi Gregorius, pinch-hitter Joey Votto and Xavier Paul hit consecutive RBI singles in the seventh to help Johnny Cueto pick up his 18th win as the Reds beat the Cubs, 5-3, on Thursday to reduce their magic number to clinch the National League Central Division to two.

The Reds were without manager Dusty Baker, hospitalized because of an irregular heartbeat. They relied on Cueto (18-9), who ranks among the NL leaders in wins, ERA (2.84), and innings pitched. He scattered five hits over six scoreless innings, snapping a three-game losing streak.

Berken made a little history in the second, when he struck out four -- Ryan Hanigan reached on a wild pitch to prolong the inning -- and is the fifth pitcher in franchise history to fan four batters in one inning. The list includes Jim Davis (May 27, 1956), Bill Bonham (July 31, 1974), Kerry Wood (Sept. 2, 2002) and Ryan Dempster (Oct. 4, 2009). That also ties a National League and Major League mark, shared by many.

"I didn't realize it until I sat down in the dugout," Berken said. "That's cool, I guess. By no means am I going for strikeouts."

He was effective with his sliders and able to get ahead in the count. That helped.

"I'm not going to try to get used to that," he said of the strikeouts. "I'd much rather have early contact versus a strikeout."

Berken could've helped himself in the Chicago second, when he came up with two outs and the bases loaded, but he hit into a fielder's choice.

"It's been a while," Berken said of his hits. "That was my third at-bat in 10 years. That's another thing I take pride in. I want to be able to handle the bat. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a hit with guys in scoring position."

He wasn't alone. The Cubs were 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, and that hit was an RBI single by Anthony Rizzo in the seventh. Welington Castillo added a solo home run with two outs in the eighth, and Rizzo plated a run on a forceout in the ninth.

The Cubs now have lost 23 consecutive games when scoring three runs or fewer, dating to their 3-2 win against the Cardinals on July 28.

Cubs manager Dale Sveum wasn't too pleased with a baserunning brain cramp Wednesday by Luis Valbuena, who was picked off at second. In the second inning on Thursday, Starlin Castro singled but was picked off at first.

"We know Cueto has one of the best moves in baseball, period," Sveum said, "and even though [Castro] was running with a 3-2 count, you're going to get thrown out if the guy swings and misses -- you're trying to stay out of the double play -- so there's no reason to push the envelope, especially if the guy has the best move in baseball."

Cueto also escaped any damage in the fourth, when Castro tripled to lead off but was stranded.

"I gambled a little bit with a tie score and played the infield in," said Reds bench coach Chris Speier, who was standing in for Baker. "With Johnny, we haven't scored a lot with him. I didn't want to give them any opportunity to get any runs. We loved that Johnny pitched his way out of it."

The Reds totaled two hits over six scoreless innings against Berken, and then rapped five straight hits off Manuel Corpas (0-2) with one out in the seventh. Denis Phipps started the parade with an infield single, his first Major League hit, and was followed by Ryan Hanigan, Gregorius, Votto and Paul to open a 3-0 lead. One out later, Henry Rodriguez hit a two-run double for his first big league RBIs.

There was no discussion about having Berken go any further.

"He did his job," Sveum said. "That was enough. We're not trying to run these guys out there and get them hurt. We're trying to get them through the rest of the season -- we don't have a lot of depth."

Berken credited pitching coach Chris Bosio with spotting some problems and getting him on track. The right-hander also isn't looking too far ahead.

"It's one start," Berken said. "I think it's important for me to build off this and put another one together after this one. There's always something to prove. I'm never comfortable or going to assume anything. For me, it's a matter of putting together a couple more good starts and going into the offseason on a positive note. By no means is it time to ease off or sit back. It's time to get after it even more and get ready for the next start."

The Cubs have 12 games remaining, and their magic number is five. They need five wins to avoid a 100-loss season, which would be the team's first since the 1966 Cubs lost 103 games. Next up are the Cardinals, who hope to secure one of the two Wild Card spots. Sveum said he likes the new format, and he checks the standings daily to see who's still in the hunt.

"It makes you understand that, obviously not this year, but in the future, you stay in contention and anything can happen -- and you roll off 10 [wins] in a row, and you're right there in the playoff race," Sveum said.

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