The first-place Reds extended their National League Central lead over the Cardinals to seven games after St. Louis lost to the Cubs. The magic number for Cincinnati to clinch dropped by two to 13.
Although the crowd of 12,061 fans at Great American Ball Park was the lowest of the season, there was some significance to the evening. The Reds are now 82-62, assured of their first winning season since 2000.
"Everyone wanted a World Series out of Spring Training, but let's have a winning season first," Baker said. "Winning breeds confidence. Winning the division is the next step. And the next step is to go to the playoffs. We got one step out of the way and three or four more steps to go."
For the third straight season, Reds starter Bronson Arroyo reached his career high of 15 victories. Arroyo (15-10) pitched six innings and allowed two runs and seven hits with no walks and a season-high eight strikeouts.
"I've definitely been proud of myself and my career for taking the ball every day and trying to be as consistent as possible knowing I don't have spectacular CC Sabathia stuff," said Arroyo, who has pitched 197 2/3 innings to close in on 200 innings for his sixth straight year. "To have 15 [wins] three years in a row is definitely satisfying."
Arroyo wasn't feeling great and didn't look great in the early going. He gave up back-to-back homers to Miguel Montero and Ryan Church to start the second inning but only five more hits and no runs the rest of his night before exiting with 107 pitches.
The Reds saw Arroyo's fastball velocity was in the 83-84 mph and wondered at first if the radar gun was malfunctioning.
"I got by with a bunch of changeups and movement and some breaking balls," said Arroyo, who snapped a personal three-game losing streak. "I just didn't have stuff. I came out of the 'pen knowing it was going to be a war. You feel sluggish sometimes and don't have a lot of zip on anything. Fortunately, I had some command. If you don't have one, you hope you have the other."
In his first at-bat after a 12-game layoff, Bruce kicked-started the Reds' power burst in the bottom of the second by depositing Barry Enright's 2-2 pitch into the right-field seats. Drew Stubbs hit Enright's very next pitch to right field also for another homer.
With one out in the third inning, Joey Votto's 34th homer of the season was a solo shot to left field. With Scott Rolen on first base and two outs, Bruce lifted a 1-2 pitch to right field for his second homer and a 5-2 Reds lead. He was originally not in the Reds' lineup but returned a day earlier than expected when Chris Heisey was scratched.
"Heisey said the MVP of today was him because he got hurt," Baker said, laughing.
Pain in the side muscles or obliques for hitters is like a pianist having arthritis. Bruce could do nothing to recover but mostly rest and let his injury heal. He was told by the medical staff he wouldn't be 100 percent the rest of the season, but he wasn't favoring his side. In fact, it might have helped him.
"It helped me be more relaxed," Bruce said. "That's the biggest thing about hitting. You need to be relaxed up there. I guess that's how I'm supposed to feel all the time. Hopefully I can feel that, know what it's like and repeat it."
Leading off the fifth inning, Orlando Cabrera also went deep to left field to notch his first homer since May 5. Bruce returned in the seventh inning with his two-out, broken-bat single into right field scoring Cabrera.
Bruce has certainly underscored his value to the Reds late in the season. After a mid-summer slump, he caught fire just as he went down. In his last five games, he is 11-for-19 (.579) with seven homers and 12 RBIs.
After Bruce's second long ball of the night, Ramon Hernandez asked Bruce if hitting homers after missing 12 games was easy.
"I said, 'No, it's not that easy,'" Bruce said. "This game is humbling. It's always going to humble you. When you think you have it figured out, you don't. The best thing is to never think you have it figured out."