CINCINNATI -- Raise your hand if you were expecting this. If your hand is up, you're probably lying. Everyone expected the Reds' offense to bash and tally runs faster than the national debt ticker in New York City. After all, they led the National League in runs and homers last year and are again among the league leaders this season.
But fundamental hitting? Quality starting pitching? A dependable bullpen? Don't look now, but all the key ingredients needed for the long haul have been there lately. After trailing the Cardinals by two early Tuesday afternoon, the Reds used all of the above to score three unanswered runs in a 3-2 win before 25,127 at Great American Ball Park. Cincinnati swept the two-game series and took four of five on the homestand from Houston and St. Louis. "Finally, we've got everything together," said Javier Valentin, who lined a pinch-hit RBI single in the bottom of the ninth for the game-winner. "We can play with anybody. If we can continue to play like we are now, we're going to be there." At 19-8, the Reds remained in sole possession of first place in the National League Central. They are off to their best start since beginning the 1990 world championship season with a 20-6 record. "There's a lot of belief in this clubhouse," Reds manager Jerry Narron said. "We really think we can be competitive and win a lot of games and stay in it. I know it's early, but you're facing the two best teams [in the division]. It means a lot to win four out of five." With the added benefit of slugger Albert Pujols being a late scratch with a sore back, Dave Williams provided a quality start in allowing two earned runs and eight hits in 6 2/3 innings. The lefty survived a rocky first inning, when he gave up three singles and a run. Back-to-back homers in the bottom of the sixth by Adam Dunn and Edwin Encarnacion off Cardinals starter Sidney Ponson tied the game. Then it became a battle of the bullpens. Williams left the game with two outs and two men on in the seventh. Once right-hander Rick White was called in, pinch-hitter Jim Edmonds flied out to center field to end the inning. Todd Coffey (2-0) followed with two innings of scoreless relief. Coffey retired his first five batters in order before allowing back-to-back two-out singles in the ninth. The hard-throwing right-hander escaped by striking out John Gall on three pitches, the last an 84-mph offspeed pitch to end the inning. "That's all I want to do ... is get our hitters back in there," said Coffey, who has a stingy 0.53 ERA through 14 appearances this season. In their last nine games, Reds relievers have posted a 1.48 ERA. It was at 6.43 over the first 12 games this season. Not coincidentally, the rotation has posted a 7-1 record with a 2.17 ERA in its last nine games -- including one complete game each from Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, who is off to a 5-0 start. "Starting pitching is doing great, our bullpen is becoming solid right now," Coffey said. "It doesn't matter who comes in. You just feel that our bullpen is right there with each other and clicking." "It's pitching and defense. That's what wins games," catcher Jason LaRue said. Leading off the bottom of the ninth against freshly called-up Cardinals rookie Brian Falkenborg (0-1), Austin Kearns reached on an infield single off the pitcher's glove. The next batter, Brandon Phillips, was hit by a pitch. In a sacrifice situation, LaRue fouled his first bunt attempt before falling to an 0-2 count. In what could have been a risky move with two strikes, he dropped a perfect bunt to the third-base side that moved the runners over. "I think anybody in the lineup needs to bunt," LaRue said. "In my mind, it's kind of one of the lost arts. So many people want to hit home runs, you have to get back to the basics." Batting for Coffey and facing a drawn-in St. Louis infield, Valentin scorched his line drive just over second baseman Aaron Miles' glove to end the game. With first base open, the Cardinals had the option of intentionally walking Valentin once he had a 2-0 count against Falkenborg. "I was surprised [he pitched to me] after he went 2-0," Valentin said. "After I took the second pitch, I was seeing the ball good. I thought there was no way I would see a fastball. I was ready for anything off the plate. I got a changeup up." The Reds have won 11 of their last 13 games and are 7-1-1 in nine series this season. Narron, who liked how his club used opposite-field hitting to score its runs in Monday's 6-1 win, has been pleased with the multi-dimensional approach to his offense overall. To him, it's been the big difference between last year and this one. "When we were hitting the ball out of the ballpark, we scored runs," Narron said. "We weren't able to generate anything, especially against the good pitchers. If you're going to beat good pitching, you can't rely on just the home run."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.