PHOENIX -- Dusty Baker knew it looked bad, and probably felt worse. So the Reds manager gathered his troops the day after they had been rolled by the St. Louis Cardinals, and essentially told them: "Move on." "Yeah, I talked to them," Baker said late Thursday night, after the Reds had given further evidence of how well the message was received. "You can't live in the past. You can't sulk. Can't look behind you. You've got to keep rolling."
The roll reached another gear Thursday night, when rookie left-hander Travis Wood pitched strongly into the seventh inning before the Reds had to weather a late Arizona charge to down the D-backs, 9-5, and complete their Major League-best fifth road sweep of the season. The win set a pair of season highs for the momentum-gaining Reds: It was their sixth straight, and it propped their lead to 3 1/2 games over the Cardinals in the National League Central. It also loosened up what, in one sense, had been the tightest pennant race in Major League annals. While that may sound like a preposterous statement for a game with the rich history of baseball, the Elias Sports Bureau folks have discovered that the Reds and the Cardinals had kept company at the top longer and closer than any other two teams ever. Until the final out Thursday night, either the Reds or the Cardinals -- they have had 19 lead changes -- were ahead of the other by three games or fewer for 101 consecutive games. That broke the me-and-my-shadow record of 98 days set in 1964 by the Phillies and the Giants. The Reds had been yanked into a dead-heat with St. Louis by the time the Cardinals had completed that Aug. 9-11 sweep in Great American Ball Park. "We're all grown men. You have to be able to clean up and come back," said Ramon Hernandez, whose three-run homer in the fourth inning had broken up a scoreless left-handers' duel between Wood and Joe Saunders. "As a team, you have to put something like that in the past. "That shows how close this team is. We win together and we lose together. Nobody points fingers. It's the little pieces that make a big building." Wood (4-1), recalled from Triple-A Louisville prior to the game to begin his second tour of the season with the Reds, allowed four hits and a run in 6 1/3 innings, with two walks and five strikeouts. Hernandez ruined the nascent pitchers' duel when he followed a one-out walk to Scott Rolen and Jonny Gomes' single with his sixth homer off Saunders (7-13) to give the Reds a 3-0 lead. Jay Bruce then converted the club's seventh instance of back-to-back homers this season with his 13th shot of the season. "The home run by Hernandez killed [Saunders]," Arizona manager Kirk Gibson said of the first-pitch blast into the seats in left-center. "That was a mistake pitch to Hernandez, for a first pitch, but he made him pay for it." Seeing it the same way, Saunders said, "I should have known that Ramon was going to be aggressive with a runner on. It wasn't a bad pitch; it was just the wrong pitch." "It was nice to get those quick runs there," said Wood, who had started off by uncharacteristically walking Stephen Drew -- only the third walk he has issued to a left-handed hitter in 36 plate appearances. Until Mark Reynolds smoked a solo homer with one out in the fifth, the only hit off Wood was an infield single by Arizona catcher John Hester in the third inning. Hester chopped a ball a bit to the right of the mound on which Wood appeared to back off, perhaps expecting charging shortstop Paul Janish to have an easier play. Janish, however, seemed handcuffed by the ball and never got off a throw. That would have been a very slim barrier to a no-hitter -- Wood threw eight perfect innings against the Phillies in his third big league start -- but Reynolds blasted the what-ifs into the left-field seats. Baker kept a close eye on Wood, who during his 10-day detour to Louisville had thrown only two innings, by design, on Saturday. "He threw the ball excellently," said Baker, who allowed him to throw it only 78 times before turning to a shuttle of four relievers. As it had the night before, in their 11-7 comeback win over the D-backs, the Reds' late show began in the eighth inning. Given life when Arizona left fielder Rusty Ryal muffed Bruce's liner with two outs and nobody on for an error, the Reds piled on five runs, with Drew Stubbs singling for two and Joey Votto doubling for two more, to take a 9-1 lead. After the door opened, Laynce Nix was the first one through with a run-scoring pinch-hit single. "That hit by Nix was big," Baker said. "Fortunately for us, we got that big error and turned it into five runs. If you want to be a good team, you've got to capitalize on mistakes like that. Put up a crooked number after something like that, and it's big." "I dropped it," Ryal simply said with a shrug. "I didn't make the play." Arizona took a big bite out of that with a four-run surge in the bottom of the inning punctuated by Chris Young's three-run homer off Jordan Smith. So Wood's return was almost as dramatic as his first coming. On July 1, when the Reds were clinging to a half-game lead over St. Louis, he arrived to hold the Cubs to two hits over seven innings in a 3-2 win that tripled that lead to 1 1/2 games. This time, he helped open up their biggest lead yet. "We're playing well," Wood said on his way out of town. "Hopefully, we can carry it over to Los Angeles."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.