Reds play host to surging Cubs

Chicago's club has begun playing much better since last time it visited Cincinnati.

Ryan Ludwick and the Reds will see a different Chicago team this week than the one that visited last month. 

Al Behrman / AP

CINCINNATI -- It was old Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige who liked to tell people as he grew older, "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you."

And that certainly applies to the Cincinnati Red these days as the season runs in course. If they haven't notice, they might best look over their shoulders because something is certainly gaining on them.

The Chicago Cubs have turned into bears.

The last time the Reds saw the Cubs in Great American Ball Park was for a five-game series in early July and the Reds won four. When the Cubs left town the Reds were 49-43, only 2 ½ games out of first place. The Cubs were 39-52, in last place, and 9 ½ games behind the Reds.

The Cubs are back in town this week and they are gaining on the Reds, step by step by step.

Since the Cubs left town the Reds have fallen upon miserable times -- a 14-25 record that dropped them 10 games out of first place.

The Cubs? They have gone 19-20 since leaving Cincinnati and pulled with 4 ½ games of climbing out of last place and pushing the Reds into the cellar.

Now they are in Cincinnati again for a three-game series, fresh from sweeping three games in Baltimore from the Orioles, leaders of the American League East. And they've won 16 of their last 27, the best record over that period in the National League.

No longer are they the Les Miserables Cubs or the Lovable Losers.

What is amazing is that the Cubs were heavy-handed players at the trade deadline, trading three of their best pitchers -- starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel and left handed relief pitcher James Russell. They also traded shortstop/leadoff hitter Emilio Bonifacio and Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney.

This wasn't a face-lift, it was a body makeover. And suddenly the Cubs are winning and challenging the Reds.

Reds manager Bryan Price doesn't like to talk deeply about the opposition, but he sniffs what is happening right behind his team.

"Sometimes changes are good and they did move some talented players, especially in their starting rotation," he said. "And Bonifacio was a pretty significant move, too, because he is a true speed guy who did a lot damage for them before he was hurt.

"I'm sure they hated to lose starters like Samardzija and Hammel because those were big blows," he added. "However, it has created opportunities for other people to come in. They have some young players excited to be in the big leagues with some new opportunities in their starting rotation.

"When you put opportunity and young energy with good young talent you start to see their good young players that major league baseball has been hearing about for some time now," Price added.

Over the past three seasons, the Cubs have been a snare drum for the Reds -- the Reds own a 39-13 record. And Cubs manager Rick Renteria is painfully aware of it.

"I was looking the numbers and they've seemed to have done well against us over the years," said Renteria. Well?

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"It's like anything, you just have to play good baseball, give yourself a chance, minimize mistakes and take advantage of opportunities give to you," he added "It is tough to win a big-league ballgame if you don't play well, so we just have to go out and play good baseball."

To try to help the team play even better, the Cubs are calling up the latest Cuban defector for Wednesday's game, 22-year-old outfielder Jorge Soler. He signed a 10-year deal with the Cubs two years ago and will make his major-league debut.

Renteria plans to bat him sixth or seventh to ease him in and play him in right field.

"It's exciting for the whole organization for a young man who has been talked about quite a bit," said Renteria. "It's time to get him up here and get his feet wet and experience big-league baseball, just chip away and see how he goes.

"We saw him this spring and he is very gifted, a very good outfielder with some power," Renteria added. "He is here to show upswhat he has and I'll think he'll do fine."

It will be another strange face for the Reds to see wearing a Cubs uniform as the Cubs try to catch the Reds in the standings and the Reds try to hold them off.