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08/12/09 1:16 AM ET

Lehr improves to 2-0 vs. first-place foes

Spotted three runs in first, right-hander downs Cardinals

ST. LOUIS -- Need to knock off a contender? Call Reds pitcher Justin Lehr, the slayer of first-place teams.

"Ha! I didn't say that," Lehr said. "You'll never hear that coming out of my mouth. You're never as good as your last game or as bad."

Lehr was certainly good enough as he dodged trouble and the Reds did likewise to hang on to a 5-4 win over the National League Central-leading Cardinals on Tuesday night. Now 2-0 this season in the big leagues, both of the right-hander's victories have come against first-place clubs.

Keep in mind, the 32-year-old Lehr has only three career starts in the Majors -- total.

This outing was a far cry from the superlative four-hit shutout that Lehr dealt the then division-leading Cubs last week in Cincinnati. But while the right-hander gave up 11 hits over six-plus innings, he managed to limit the Cardinals to just one run and left leading by a 4-1 score.

How does that happen? All 11 hits off Lehr were singles, and he kept the pressure off himself. While he was on the mound, the Cardinals had just four at-bats with runners in scoring position, with Ryan Ludwick's RBI single the only success at getting a man home.

"If you're going to give up hits, they might as well be singles," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "Most of those singles were ground balls. If you can do that, most of the time, you'll stay out of trouble."

Lehr had at least two baserunners on in each of his first five innings. In the second inning, he benefited from Yadier Molina's ground-ball double play. In the fourth, Molina ran into a inning-ending double play when he was thrown out at home plate by left fielder Jonny Gomes.

"That was a good amount of baserunners, that's for sure," Lehr said. "A lot of small hits, but they never got the big hit, and the innings kept moving along. I wasn't really panicky about the hits because I felt like I was making decent pitches."

"We had some opportunities, but I think you've just got to give credit to their pitcher," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "He made a lot of good pitches. He didn't throw the ball down the middle. If he would have, we had a chance. So I give him credit."

Also credit Lehr with the first Major League hit of his career when he singled to left field in the sixth inning. The club made sure he got the ball and a copy of the lineup card.

While going 6-for-14 with runners in scoring position and getting career-high-tying four hits from Alex Gonzalez, the Reds still seemed to do everything they could to give the game to the Cardinals.

Chris Dickerson ran into a pair of outs with baserunning gaffes. In the top of the first, he was caught drifting off third base on Joey Votto's grounder and was tagged out by Mark DeRosa. The rest of the lineup picked Dickerson up.

Sending eight to the plate against Cardinals starter Mitchell Boggs, the Reds jumped out to a 3-0 lead. With one out, Laynce Nix drove in two with a double to left field. Gomes then reached on a single deep in the hole at shortstop, scoring Brandon Phillips. Votto's second-inning RBI single made it a four-run game.

St. Louis scored two in the eighth off Nick Masset, including one on Albert Pujols' 37th homer of the season. It got hairy in the ninth, as sloppy play behind closer Francisco Cordero put the tying run on first base with Pujols at the plate representing the go-ahead run. But Cordero induced a groundout from Pujols and fanned Matt Holliday to hold on for his 25th save.

"We played hard tonight. We didn't play smart all the time," Baker said. "We had a couple of baserunning miscues. We left a couple of runners on third with less than two outs. You just hope those things don't haunt you."

It wasn't the case for the 49-62 Reds, who have gotten a nice little lift from Lehr, called up to take injured starter Micah Owings' place in the rotation. Lehr, a former big league reliever, who was 13-3 in Triple-A this season, now owns a 1.80 ERA for the Reds.

"It's tough to take the kid out when he keeps pitching like that," Baker said. "He battled to get to this point at 32 years old. He's learned how to pitch. He beat a very good Cubs lineup and a very potent St. Louis Cardinals lineup."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.