Streaking Reds pulling away with division lead

NEW YORK — After slogging through a rough patch during the early part of June that saw them lose five of seven games — not to mention their hold on the lead in the National League Central — the Cincinnati Reds seem to be completely off the schneid and finding their rhythm once again.

Saturday night’s 4-1 win over the New York Mets at Citi Field was the fifth straight for the suddenly streaking Reds, who now hold a four-game lead over Pittsburgh and St. Louis in the division. And at 37-27, Cincinnati is 10 games above .500 for the first time since 2010.

The Reds are arguably playing their best baseball of the young season as the All-Star break draws near, and as they continue to distance themselves from the rest of the pack in the NL Central, Cincinnati is beginning to look more like a team that could, perhaps, create some havoc come October.

“We’re just having a good time, just believing in ourselves, and everything is coming together,” said second baseman Brandon Phillips, who saw his streak of three straight games with a home run end on Saturday. “That’s the thing about it, when you have the talent on a team, it’s all about when you’re going to come together and make it happen.”

All told, the Reds have hit .320 and averaged seven runs per game over the last five games after collectively hitting .268 and scoring 4.3 runs per game during their recent 2-5 slip-up. But what’s benefited Cincinnati the most has been the performance of its pitching, which has allowed just 2.6 runs per game during the five-game streak.

“Our pitching has been great for us all year, from the starting rotation to the bullpen,” said right fielder Jay Bruce, whose first-inning homer was the difference in Saturday’s win. “We’ve started hitting a little bit better lately, and I think we’re going to continue to do that, but we go as the pitching goes, and it’s been great.”

The latest stalwart performance came from right-hander Homer Bailey, who turned in his best start in three outings this month, going eight strong innings and allowing just one earned run, dropping his season ERA to 4.03 while striking out three Mets hitters.

“Homer was outstanding tonight,” Reds manager Dusty Baker said. “He was dealing; he’s been pitching well. He got roughed up a couple starts before this, but other than that, he’s been reliable.”

Bailey has now won four of his last five decisions, but Saturday’s victory was his first win since May 29 against Pittsburgh. Two starts ago, the same Pirates tagged Bailey for six earned runs on eight hits in three innings.

On Saturday, Bailey at times put himself at risk of a duplicate drubbing — allowing back-to-back doubles to Daniel Murphy and David Wright in the first inning and putting a pair of runners on in the second, third and sixth — but in every case but the first, he worked out of the jam and did so efficiently, throwing 103 pitches.

“He dialed it up some,” Baker said. “His fastball was 90-91 and then with runners on base it was 93-94. That’s what the good ones do. He threw some quality pitches, that was the thing. He was outstanding tonight and we scored just enough runs to win.”

Each of those runs came courtesy of Bruce, who found multiple ways to bring them home in a game where they came at a premium. First he gave Bailey a 3-0 cushion to work with, smashing a Jonathon Niese mistake deep to right in his first at-bat nearly clearing the second deck.

It was Bruce’s second straight game with a home run, but unlike Friday night’s inside-the-park job off of Dillon Gee in Cincinnati’s 7-3 win, this time the 25-year-old All-Star was able to take his time making his way around the bases.

“I’ll take them both, that’s for sure, but it’s definitely nicer to trot around,” said Bruce, who is now fourth in the National League with 15 home runs and is tied with Joey Votto for the Reds’ team lead in RBI with 44. “But at the end of the day it’s the same result. However you can get them, you’ve got to get them.”

Bruce later added an insurance run in the fourth inning after being hit by a pitch, advancing to third on Todd Frazier’s single and scampering home on Ryan Ludwick’s single to right.

Niese, who hadn’t given up an earned run in either of his last two starts coming in, regained his composure and ended up striking out seven Reds in seven innings of work, but it was too little too late as the Mets lost for the eighth time in 12 games.

“I don’t regret throwing the pitch; I regret hanging it on the inside part of the plate,” Niese said. “Hindsight’s 20-20 … but that’s baseball. It’s one pitch — one mistake, cost me the game.”

It won’t get any easier for the Mets on Sunday, either, as Reds ace Johnny Cueto will take the mound looking for a team-high eighth victory as his team goes for its sixth straight win and second consecutive series sweep.

Cincinnati is the hottest team in the National League right now and one of just three teams in baseball with a winning streak of five games or longer. And as long as they keep getting quality pitching, timely hitting and shutdown performances from Aroldis Chapman, who picked up his eighth save in his second straight scoreless outing Saturday, they’ll be tough to beat.

“We just got our swag on right now,” Phillips said. “We’re not really worrying about things. All we’re doing is playing baseball, trying to get things done, and it’s fun.”