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Circuitous path leads Lehr to shutout

Circuitous path leads Lehr to shutout

CINCINNATI -- Reds owner/CEO Bob Castellini's face was beaming when he emerged from his team's clubhouse.

"Everybody cheer up! It's almost like winning the World Series," Castellini said.

Castellini was kidding, but you couldn't blame him for being giddy. The Reds snapped a season-high eight-game losing streak and a string of 14 losses in 15 games with a 4-0 win over the Cubs on Wednesday to finish a 2-8 homestand at Great American Ball Park

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It was the most unlikely of people that sprung a smile on the big boss's face. Journeyman pitcher Justin Lehr, in just his second big league start, dealt a four-hitter with one walk and four strikeouts while throwing 117 pitches.

It was the first shutout of the 32-year-old Lehr's career in professional baseball, and it came against a first-place Cubs team boasting a loaded lineup.

"If you believe in miracles, that was one of them," Reds manager Dusty Baker said.

"No rhyme or reason to it. It's just the way it goes," said Lehr, who was jumped with two shaving cream pies and a beer shower by fellow pitchers.

For only the fourth time in the Reds' past 28 games, a starting pitcher was a winner, and it was one who has the least longevity. Lehr was called up from Triple-A Louisville on Friday to replace Micah Owings, who is on the 15-day disabled list.

In that start vs. Colorado, Lehr gave up three runs and six walks over just five innings.

"It's a funny game. You just don't know," Baker said. "After his last outing, he was so-so and kind of wild, up in the zone. Today, he was up when he wanted to be and down when he wanted to be. His curveball was working. He and [catcher Ryan] Hanigan worked well in the Minors last year."

While Lehr retired 10 of his first 11 batters, he benefited from his lineup's early jump. The Reds' notched only five hits in the game but had three in a row during the bottom of the second in which nine men batted.

Back in the lineup for the first time following a beaning that put him out for two games, Scott Rolen slugged his first pitch from Rich Harden for a two-run homer to left field. It was Rolen's first long ball and first hit in seven at-bats for Cincinnati since his Friday trade from the Blue Jays for three players.

Later in the second with runners on first and second and one out, Lehr dropped a sacrifice bunt to the mound that had Harden spin and make a throwing error past third base. It allowed Wladimir Balentien to score for a 3-0 lead. In the seventh, Willy Taveras beat out a ground ball to shortstop for a single and stole both second and third base. On a shallow sacrifice fly to center field by Alex Gonzalez, Taveras sped home and slid in ahead of the tag for an insurance run.

The rest of the game was all Lehr. His only tough inning came in the Cubs' fourth when he allowed two singles that put runners on first and second with two outs. The inning ended when Lehr froze Alfonso Soriano with a 70-mph curveball for a called strike three.

"It was supposed to be in the dirt," Lehr said. "It actually barely got down into the zone at the last second. It worked."

There were only two more Cubs hits in the game -- Harden with a two-out double in the fifth and Soriano with an infield hit off of Lehr's glove in the seventh. Soriano was erased with a pickoff.

"The young man, Lehr, changed speeds all night," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "I'd never seen him before, but that type of pitcher you better look for the offspeed pitches when you get up there because he'll tantalize you. I think that's exactly what he did tonight to us, he tantalized us."

After a 1-2-3 eighth inning, Lehr had 102 pitches heading into the ninth. Baker let him stay but had closer Francisco Cordero warming up in the bullpen. Lehr got a flyout from Ryan Theriot, a grounder from Derrek Lee and a popout from Aramis Ramirez to end the game.

"The most pitches he had thrown this year was 105," Baker said. "Things are going well, you don't mess with the karma. If anybody had got on base, we would have brought in Cordero, but nobody got on and we didn't have to make that decision."

Lehr's improbable shutout came after several seasons of strange twists and turns. His last big league stint came with the Brewers as a reliever in 2006 and this is his third stint in the Reds organization in two seasons. He began 2008 in Louisville but left for four months to play in Korea and returned in August.

After he signed with the Phillies in the offseason, Lehr returned to Louisville in a trade in May and went 8-1 with a 2.51 ERA and 13-3 overall. His stay isn't even guaranteed by the victory. Owings could be activated when the turn in the rotation comes up again on Tuesday in St. Louis.

"I'm not sure how it happens," Lehr said of his recent career. "It's been a long haul since '06 when I got the rug pulled out from underneath me pretty quickly. It's been really hard to get back."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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