Soto hits 10th HR as Cubs down Reds

Ten months ago, Geovany Soto was the near-unanimous choice as NL Rookie of the Year. These days, the Chicago Cubs catcher is just trying to find his swing so his manager will put him on the lineup card more often.

“This game will humble you in a minute,” Soto said Friday after driving in two runs with his first homer since Aug. 10 and a sacrifice fly in a 6-4 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

“Everything’s a challenge. You’ve got to keep grinding. You can’t give up. Sometimes, I wanted to put my head down … but I never did.”

After batting .285 with 23 home runs and 86 RBIs last season, Soto is at .220 with 10 homers and 37 RBIs this year. The falloff came after a difficult offseason, as the Cubs didn’t re-sign his mentor, Henry Blanco, and Soto tested positive for marijuana at the World Baseball Classic.

He went on the disabled list retroactive to July 7 with a strained oblique muscle. After coming off the DL exactly one month later, he batted .140 with one homer and four RBIs in his next 16 games. Manager Lou Piniella also started platooning Soto with light-hitting Koyie Hill; the Cubs are 38-23 in games caught by Hill vs. 34-44 in Soto’s starts.

“Sometimes, it feels like you’re swimming against the current and you’re not getting anywhere,” said Soto, who has two RBIs in each of his last three games. “I’ve learned you’ve got to keep fighting. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but I feel better at the plate.”

Aramis Ramirez rebounded from a poor trip to go 3 for 3 with three RBIs for the Cubs. Chicago, coming off a three-game sweep at Pittsburgh, had not won four in a row since taking five straight from Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Houston from July 22-27.

Cincinnati has lost five consecutive games. The Reds (63-78) have had four skids of five games or longer since the All-Star break.

“Whenever you lose it’s usually the case that you’re not getting that hit,” Reds manager Dusty Baker said. “They got a couple of big ones, especially by Aramis Ramirez, who wasn’t swinging well before we got here. We had trouble getting that hit.”

Ramirez had as many hits Friday as he did in 22 at-bats during a six-game trip that ended Wednesday. He is batting .398 with 31 RBIs in 31 home games, but .241 with 23 RBIs in 35 road games.

Jeff Stevens (1-0) allowed Jonny Gomes‘ tying three-run homer in the fifth, winning in relief of Rich Harden, who allowed one run, two hits and five walks in four innings, throwing 103 pitches.

“The first inning, he threw 40 pitches and I knew it was going to be a relatively short outing after that,” Piniella said. “He hit his pitch count in the fourth and we got him out of there.”

Aaron Heilman, Esmailin Caridad and Carlos Marmol combined four innings of one-hit relief to finish the six-hitter, with Marmol getting three outs for his 12th save in 16 chances.

Chicago, which began the day 11 1/2 games back of NL Central-leading St. Louis, is 18-6 against division rivals Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and 54-61 against the other teams on its schedule.

Justin Lehr (4-2), who pitched a four-hit shutout against the Cubs last month, allowed five runs and five hits in 4 2-3 innings.

“I have good enough stuff to definitely pitch better,” Lehr said. “I left some stuff up in the zone, gave up three runs on two-out hits (by Ramirez) … and two of my walks scored. It doesn’t put you in a situation to win.”

Ramirez’s two-run single gave Chicago a 3-1 lead in the third, and Soto homered in the fourth. Ramirez’s RBI single in the fifth put the Cubs ahead for good, and pinch-hitter Bobby Scales doubled in a run in the eighth against Nick Masset.


Cubs LF Alfonso Soriano is to get a second opinion on the left knee injury that has sidelined him since Sept. 4, and Piniella said it was “doubtful” Soriano will play again this season. Piniella also said Soriano’s days of batting leadoff were “over with.” Soriano, whose 54 career leadoff homers rank second in major league history to Rickey Henderson’s 81, had been hitting sixth since July 4. … Reds RHP Micah Owings rejoined the team Friday, five days after he was hit in the helmet by a pitch from Atlanta’s Kenshin Kawakami. Tests were normal and Owings said he felt fine, but Baker said Owings likely won’t play in the series.