Reds jump into first behind Arroyo's gem

Reds jump into first behind Arroyo's gem

CINCINNATI -- Sure, it's only mid-May and 37 games into the season, but if the door to first place is opened by the team occupying it, why not go through and take it?

The Reds did not pooh-pooh such an opportunity Sunday and grabbed a 7-2 win over the Cardinals that gave them two of three in the series. Cincinnati (21-16), which has won seven of its last eight and 14 of 19, holds a one-half game lead over the Cardinals, which is real estate they've usually held firm.

It's the first time St. Louis hasn't led the National League Central since July 30, 2009.

"It definitely means something," said Bronson Arroyo, who pitched his first complete game of the season. "I think it means more on this club right now than it does if we had a winning club the last few years -- just because of the confidence and keeping the ball rolling."

Arroyo is one of only three Reds around that experienced a somewhat deep hold of first place on June 8, 2006. The Reds haven't been in sole possession of first place since April 17, 2007, and they held a one-day tie for first on May 13 last season.

"We can't really fall back on the fact that we've come back from big deficits like the Astros have over the last few years," Arroyo said. "We've got to stay in it the whole time because things have fallen apart over the last four years a good amount of the time."

For the third time in the last five games, the Reds got a complete game from one of their starting pitchers.

Arroyo (3-2) allowed two earned runs and seven hits with three walks and four strikeouts while throwing 108 pitches. He eluded danger a few times, including the first two innings. In the first after intentionally walking Albert Pujols with one out and a runner on second, Matt Holliday grounded into a 6-4-3 double play.

In the St. Louis second, Cardinals pitcher Brad Penny's botched sacrifice bunt turned into an inning-ending double play as well.

"Those two plays were four outs on two pitches. That's huge," Reds manager Dusty Baker said.

Scott Rolen hurt his former team with two hits and three RBIs, including a two-run home run into the right-field seats off Penny in the first inning. Three consecutive singles started the Reds' third inning, including Rolen's RBI roller through the right side. Jonny Gomes' sacrifice fly made it 4-0.

During a three-run bottom of the fifth with first base open and two outs, Penny intentionally walked Ryan Hanigan to load the bases for Arroyo. The move backfired when Arroyo lined a two-run single to right field that scored Jay Bruce and Gomes. Orlando Cabrera followed with a lined RBI single to left field.

"Results aside, we're here because we're playing good baseball," Rolen said. "We're pitching well, having some good at-bats and getting timely hitting. We've worked hard and played well to get here and it's harder to stay here."

Arroyo escaped a bases-loaded jam in the fifth with only one run crossing on a fielder's choice. Jason LaRue added a second Cardinals run with a seventh-inning homer. Baker let Arroyo bat for himself in the bottom of the eighth and finishing the game was no issue. Arroyo needed only eight pitches in the ninth.

Pitching has been the Reds' catalyst, with the staff owning a 1.88 ERA over the last eight games -- including a 2.11 ERA for the rotation.

This was clearly a series where winning it meant much more to Cincinnati than losing it did to St. Louis, a perennial favorite in the division.

"It's exciting for them," Penny said. "Not many years they've been where they are now. It's better than not being there at all. I can definitely understand their excitement. They've definitely got a better team this year. If their pitching holds up, they're going to be pretty tough."

The Reds haven't had a winning season since 2000 and only have a few players that have experienced success elsewhere. More is at stake this season as they got some preseason attention as a club that could make waves in the division. It's also the final year of Baker's contract and the last guaranteed year for Arroyo and ace Aaron Harang.

"We have a few guys that keep everyone level and grounded. It's not much of a lead," Baker said. "We have a little different scenario now. Now we'll see how we handle being the one that's chased vs. chasing somebody else."

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