"We had a little wake-up call," said shortstop Royce Clayton, whose two-run homer with one out in the sixth was the Reds' first hit of the game off Braves lefty Chuck James.
"We talked in a meeting that you have to play with emotion," Clayton said. "You have to play with passion, and today kind of exemplified the type of character we have and the passion and [our] want to win. We're going to be tough to beat if we play with that type of passion and dedication."
The pregame clubhouse meeting was called by Reds manager Jerry Narron, who sought a more competitive urgency from his players in games from start to finish.
"I think it was a great call by Jerry to address some things," said Clayton, who has two homers over his last eight plate appearances after having zero in his previous 730.
One night after a rain delay halted the Dodgers and Greg Maddux's no-hit bid after six innings, James held Cincinnati hitless for 5 1/3 innings and had a 2-0 lead. Freel drew a four-pitch walk with one out before Clayton went deep to left field and tied the game.
James (4-3) went from no-hit bid to nowhere. He was finished after he walked Ken Griffey Jr. and gave up Rich Aurilia's double. Edwin Encarnacion's two-run double off Chad Paronto made it a 4-2 Reds advantage. It put Aaron Harang (12-7) in line for the victory after he allowed two runs, one earned, over six innings.
Then, the Reds had to pull out all the stops to protect their lead.
Later in the inning, with Chris Denorfia batting, Encarnacion was thrown out running from third on a botched suicide-squeeze attempt. Brandon Phillips tried to go from first to third on the play and was thrown out to end the inning.
"I don't think the guys are going to play to lose," Narron said. "Everybody is playing to win. We want to play a little smarter."
Marcus Giles' one-out RBI double in the Braves' seventh off reliever Gary Majewski made it a 4-3 game. Juan Castro's RBI single in the Reds' seventh proved important after Atlanta kept it tight in the eighth on Jeff Francoeur's leadoff homer off Rheal Cormier.
After Cormier gave up a double, David Weathers was called in to hold the game together, and he got some help.
Weathers' first batter, pinch-hitter Matt Diaz, lofted a tailing foul pop near the right-field wall. Running to his left at full speed, Freel made a full-extension dive and caught the ball before he slid on the dirt headfirst into the wall.
"I don't think anybody is surprised when Freelie gives up everything to make a catch," Narron said.
It was redemption for Freel, who committed an error on a routine fly ball against the Dodgers that led to five unearned runs scoring in a loss on Tuesday.
"You've got to get an out, somehow, some way," Freel said. "We seemed to not get those big outs. You can never take any outs for granted. You have to get them anyway you can. That's what I was thinking there. 'Run and catch the ball. I don't care how you do it. Just catch it.'"
Weathers picked up a grounder before Willy Aybar was called out on strikes. Right fist clinched, the veteran reliever pumped his arm and yelled as he walked off the mound.
There was more where that came from in the ninth.
In his most challenging save situation yet as a Red, Eddie Guardado loaded the bases with no outs on Giles' bloop single, Edgar Renteria's double off the wall and Andruw Jones' intentional walk.
Guardado got Brian McCann to fly out to shallow left field. Then he got Francoeur to ground into a double play at third base. Castro fielded the ball and threw quickly to second to Phillips, who fired a perfect strike to first base without hesitation. The crowd of 33,661 at Great American Ball Park erupted as Francoeur was called out at first base.
"It was a little slow grounder to my left," Castro said. "I just wanted to make a good throw to Brandon. And Brandon just made a heck of a turn to first base."
No one was more thrilled, or relieved, than Guardado. The lefty, who is 7-for-7 in save chances with Cincinnati, shouted and pumped his fist on the mound before shaking hands with teammates.
The win moved the Reds up to 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Cardinals in the National League Central standings. The Cardinals lost their eighth straight game on Friday.
"Oh, man, that was fun," Guardado said. "I show a lot of emotion out there. I don't mean it towards anybody. That's who I am. To do that in that situation -- bases loaded, no outs -- to get a double play, it's exciting. You can't expect it. Of course, coming off five [losses] in a row, that's always good. It's momentum. Exciting things like that get you momentum."