"Especially being in our division," said Reds winning pitcher Aaron Harang, who recorded his 1,000th career strikeout in the game, "it's probably going to come down to the end of the year. To come in early and get some big wins right now, it means a lot."
Appropriately it was their best pitcher, Harang, and the only hot hitter, Joey Votto, who carried the Reds to the win. Harang threw seven-plus innings with just one unearned run allowed. Votto was 4-for-5 with a RBI double in the sixth inning off Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano and a leadoff homer in the eighth.
The Reds came in with a Major League-low .219 batting average, but put together a season-high 13 hits.
"I think it was more of a message to ourselves," Votto said. "As long as the road trip was, to be able to finish it off on such a good note and being able to go home with a winning record, and especially beating the Cubs, was big for us as a whole."
Before the game, Baker stressed the importance of not being satisfied with a six-win trip. He wanted to win all three series at division rivals Milwaukee [two of three], Houston [three of four] and Chicago.
"You can't think about the end," Baker said. "That's why I try to stress getaway day victories. They usually prevent a sweep, create a sweep or they win a series for you. It's big. On getaway days, you can't think about home or family or anything. That's why they're so tough to play. You have to fool yourself like it's almost the first day of the road trip."
Harang, who allowed seven hits with one walk and two strikeouts, was locked in a good duel with Zambrano in the early innings. Zambrano retired nine of his first 10 until Chris Dickerson led off the Reds' fourth with a triple to the right-field wall that Micah Hoffpauir couldn't snag. After Edwin Encarnacion drew a one-out walk, Jay Bruce's RBI single scored Dickerson with the game's first run.
In the top of the sixth, Willy Taveras singled to right field, and an errant pickoff throw by Zambrano sent Taveras to third base. With one out, Votto hit his second double of the game to score Taveras for a 2-0 advantage.
Harang, who has a 2.00 ERA after four starts, tweaked his back fielding Geovany Soto's grounder to the left of the mound and making a tough throw. Harang still managed to retire the side in order but hit some trouble in the sixth.
Alfonso Soriano hit a single to left field and took an extra base when Dickerson fumbled with the ball for an error. Ryan Theriot's lined RBI single to center field scored Soriano. Harang escaped further damage when Theriot was caught stealing second before Kosuke Fukudome lined out and Derrek Lee struck out.
"I'm just glad to get him back to .500 at 2-2," Baker said. "He always draws the tough assignment. He drew [the Mets'] Johan Santana and now he had Zambrano. That's what happens when you're No. 1. You draw their No. 1 pitcher on the other side most of the time."
The Reds pulled away with two more runs on Zambrano in the seventh and in the eighth, when Votto hit a homer to left-center field off lefty reliever Neal Cotts.
Votto is hitting .373 with three homers and 15 RBIs for the season.
Last season, Cincinnati was 31-50 on the road and 31-47 vs. NL Central rivals. They hadn't won three road series on the same trip since Sept. 21-30, 2004.
The trip vs. three division rivals started with the Reds taking two of three at Milwaukee and three of four in Houston. But both of those teams have struggled and started the season slow. The Cubs, the two-time defending National League Central champions, were a much truer early test for the much younger Reds.
No one can say they didn't pass. If they didn't win this one, it would have been a less pleasant trip back to Cincinnati.
"I think apropos word would have been bittersweet," Votto said. "We would have left pretty unhappy. There would have been a lot of 'what ifs' as a whole. A lot of guys have a different mind-set now and there's a lot of confidence in this group."