The Cincinnati Reds are headed back to the postseason, but that’s not enough.
Mike Leake will try to continue his dazzling stretch and help pull the Reds closer to the top of the NL Central on Tuesday night against the New York Mets.
Cincinnati (90-67) has qualified for the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the “The Big Red Machine” won World Series titles in 1975 and 1976.
Shin-Soo Choo booked the latest trip Monday, when he hit a long drive off the top of the wall in left-center to drive in Devin Mesoraco and clinch a 3-2, 10-inning win over New York.
“We’re excited, obviously,” shortstop Zack Cozart said. “That’s not our goal. We’re in the division hunt. We’re not happy with a wild card.”
The Reds and Pittsburgh have at least a wild-card berth, but both trail division-leading St. Louis by two games with five to play.
Giving the ball to Leake (14-6, 3.21 ERA) should give Cincinnati a strong chance to potentially close that gap, while the Cardinals host Washington.
Leake has been utterly dominant of late, winning three straight starts behind a 0.84 ERA.
He’s thrown a career-high 20 1-3 scoreless innings over that stretch, becoming the ninth Reds starter to reach at least 20 since 1974 and first since Mat Latos went 21 innings from April 19-May 5.
Leake is also trying to win a career-high fourth straight start, and he hasn’t put together a longer single-season winning streak since beginning his career 5-0 over his first 11 starts of 2010.
He was superb again last Tuesday, scattering five hits in eight innings of a 10-0 win at Houston. Despite that dominance, manager Dusty Baker didn’t want to overextend Leake, who threw 105 pitches.
“He possibly could have gone the distance, but we thought about it,” Baker told the team’s official website. “It’s not often you get to throw a complete-game shutout, but we had to look at the big picture.”
Leake’s most recent complete game came at home against the Mets (71-85) on Aug. 15, 2012, when he pitched a four-hitter in a 6-1 win.
He beat them again May 21, yielding three hits in seven innings of a 4-0 road victory.
Leake’s success against New York is partly why the Reds have a 1.88 ERA while winning nine of the past 10 meetings.
Joey Votto is a career .359 hitter versus the Mets, collecting 13 homers, 28 RBIs and 28 runs in 36 games.
New York wanted no part of the four-time All-Star, walking Votto a career-high five times — including once with the bases loaded.
The Mets will turn to Jonathon Niese (7-8, 3.81), who is 4-2 with a 3.06 ERA over eight starts since returning from a partially torn rotator cuff. The left-hander has yielded two runs or fewer in five of them.
He allowed two runs over seven innings Thursday, but the offense mustered four hits in a 2-1 loss to San Francisco.
Niese is on schedule to start the Mets’ season finale versus Milwaukee on Sunday, and he’d like to finish strong and healthy.
“If I finish the season healthy, coming into spring training next year will be a good feeling,” Niese told the team’s official website. “I had a rough patch there where I had some rotator cuff problems, but rehabbing got that behind me and it feels fresh now.”
Niese is 1-3 with a 4.55 ERA in five lifetime starts versus the Reds, going 1-0 while allowing nine runs in 11 innings over two road meetings.