Brandon Phillips had to move into the cleanup spot because of an injury on opening day. He’s swinging like he belongs there.
The All-Star second baseman drove in three runs with a bases-loaded double on Friday night, and Mike Leake got the better of left-hander Francisco Liriano for the third time this season, leading the Cincinnati Reds to a 5-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates that tightened the NL Central.
The third-place Reds moved to within three games of second-place Pittsburgh. The Pirates lead their season series 6-5.
The Reds sent nine batters to the plate for four runs in the fifth off Liriano (9-4), who had his shortest outing of the season. Chris Heisey’s infield single drove in the first run, and Phillips’ double off Justin Wilson made it 5-0.
It also gave Phillips 77 RBIs this season, among the best in baseball.
“Wow,” Phillips said. “My teammates put me in a great situation, and I was able to come through. It’s my job to try to drive men in. I’ve been doing it all year. That’s what it’s all about.”
Phillips’ excellence with runners on base has helped the Reds get through the loss of cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick, who tore cartilage in his right shoulder while sliding into base on opening day.
“He’s been our RBI clutch man all season,” manager Dusty Baker said. “You certainly need a guy like that in the middle of your lineup, because he’s going to come up with men on base.”
Heisey also had a solo homer off Liriano, who is 0-3 in three starts against Leake and the Reds this season. Liriano didn’t have much control during his first start in nine days.
“One of those days I didn’t get any rhythm,” Liriano said. “I tried to make good pitches and it didn’t work out. Everything was up.”
Leake (9-4) gave up solo homers to Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Russell Martin in the sixth inning. Manny Parra fanned Pedro Alvarez with runners on second and third to end the seventh.
Aroldis Chapman struck out two in the ninth while getting his 22nd save in 25 chances.
The Ohio River rivals have produced the majors’ most painful pairings this season. Nineteen batters have been hit by pitches – the Reds 10 times, the Pirates nine times – in their 11 games. Nobody was hit on Friday, a rare game that didn’t leave a mark.
The Pirates emerged from the All-Star break with their best record in 37 years. Their 56 wins were their most at the break since the World Series champion Pirates of 1971 had 57 wins.
Pittsburgh’s overriding question: Can it avoid another second-half meltdown and break a two-decade streak of losing?
The Reds are trying to duplicate what they did last season, when they went on a surge after the break and ran away to the NL Central title. First, they need to get healthy. Top starter Johnny Cueto, set-up men Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton, and Ludwick are still on the disabled list.
“That’s a great win to start the second half of the season,” Phillips said. “We’re playing a great team. It’s time to have some fun and wipe out the mistakes of the first half.”
Heisey took over in left field when Ludwick got hurt, then pulled his right hamstring and missed nearly two months. His solo shot on Friday gave him three homers since his return.
Shin-Soo Choo singled during Cincinnati’s four-run fifth, extending his hitting streak to 13 games, matching his career high.
Phillips’ decisive double came a few hours after a magazine released an interview with the All-Star second baseman in which he said he’s still “scarred” by the Reds’ decision to give Joey Votto a 10-year, $225 million extension in 2012 while he was in tough negotiations for an extension of his own. Votto said he understood Phillips’ opinion and appreciated his honesty.
Pirates 2B Neil Walker started a rehab assignment with Triple-A Indianapolis on Friday. He’ll play three games and get evaluated. He’s been on the 15-day DL since June 7 with soreness in his right side. … 1B Garrett Jones’ error ended Pittsburgh streak of 41 innings without one, matching their season high. … The Reds called up INF Neftali Soto from Triple-A Louisville, filling the spot opened when LH Tony Cingrani was sent down on Wednesday. … Baker said LH reliever Sean Marshall suffered a “minor setback” in his throwing program. Marshall has been on the DL since April 10 with a sore pitching shoulder.