PITTSBURGH -- As the Reds open a three-game series against the Pirates, who have the second-best record in baseball, it's only the beginning of a particularly tough month of series.
Of the 28 games that begin on Friday, only seven are against opponents currently under .500. Included are the Pirates twice, the first-place Cardinals (baseball's best team), the first-place D-backs and the first-place Rangers in that stretch. Arizona, Oakland and Texas are part of a road trip at the end of June.
"That's cool," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "This will be indicative of where you are at this point of the season right now. This team usually rises to the occasion in big games. This is when the big players stand up, guys that love the thrill of competition. This is fun. You should leave the park every day thoroughly exhausted, mentally and physically."
Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips embraced the upcoming challenge facing Cincinnati.
"This is about us doing our job," Phillips said. "We're playing some great teams but I feel like that when you play against great teams, that's when you step up. That's going to be motivation for us."
Phillips benefiting from new two-strike approach
PITTSBURGH -- Second baseman and cleanup hitter Brandon Phillips has been one of the hotter-hitting Reds of late, and their biggest run producer overall.
One of the reasons, Phillips feels, that he's been hitting well is a new approach toward being in two-strike counts.
"I'm not afraid to hit with two strikes," Phillips said on Friday. "It's one thing I decided to try and do. I wanted to see more pitches. If it's a pitch I can't drive, I won't swing until I get two strikes. I'm trying to be more aggressive in the zone, also. My mission is to drive in runs. I'm just hungry."
This season, Phillips has been the best two-strike hitter in baseball. His .327 average (36-for-110) with two strikes leads the Majors. He has two home runs and 21 RBIs in those situations.
"It's been working so far," Phillips said. "It's just something I wanted to do, especially being in the four-hole. If you want to drive in runs -- I don't want to hit just singles. I could drive in runs hitting singles batting second or third. I wouldn't mind that. But I want to hit extra-bases hits. I want RBIs."
Phillips, who had a season-high 12-game hitting streak end on Sunday, entered Friday with hits in 15 of his previous 17 games. He was batting .287 with eight home runs and his 43 RBIs were tied for the National League lead.
Being comfortable as the cleanup hitter has helped Phillips focus on producing when it counts.
"I know I'm going to be in the four-hole for a long time until [injured left fielder Ryan] Ludwick gets back," Phillips said. "I'm stable for a long period of time. That means a lot also. I'm not worried about going to another spot -- leadoff or second. That's all I've wanted to do for a long time -- just be in position so I can be myself and do my job."
Heisey making progress toward return from DL
PITTSBURGH -- Left fielder Chris Heisey, on the disabled list since April 29 with a strained right hamstring, continues to make incremental progress toward returning. Heisey hit on the field and threw to the bases before Thursday's game in Cleveland. He's also been doing full sprints and agility drills.
"The next step will be baserunning and full shagging in the next day or two," Heisey said on Friday. "If I can do that a couple of days in a row and not have soreness, then maybe they'll think about sending me on a rehab assignment."
Heisey's previous rehab assignment lasted only one inning of one game when he had a setback. He admitted the soreness isn't 100 percent gone from his hamstring, but he's not far away.
"There is still a tiny bit of soreness in there to the touch," Heisey said. "But I rarely feel anything when I'm doing baseball activity. It's feeling really good. There is no pain, just a little bit of soreness. They're working on getting that out of there. It's getting pretty close to being back to normal."
The Reds' top pick from the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, right-handed pitcher Nick Travieso who they took with the 14th overall pick, was promoted to Class A Dayton on Friday. Travieso, 19, has been at extended spring in Arizona.
"He is doing very well," said Reds player development director Jeff Graupe.