CINCINNATI -- While the time has yet to arrive where every game becomes critical against division rivals, it's certainly right around the corner. Drawing the second-place Pirates on the other side of the All-Star break with a series that started on Friday, the third-place Reds sense the opportunity before them.
And that's what made a 5-3 win over Pittsburgh before a sellout crowd of 40,831 at Great American Ball Park all the more satisfying. The process of chipping away at the deficit can't start without a victory.
"This is what it's all about. This is the second half," said second baseman Brandon Phillips, whose bases-loaded double scored three runs in the fifth inning. "We have to get it going. It's a great way to start off the second half, playing against a great team. It's time to have fun and time to go out there and try to win every game that we can and learn from the mistakes we made in the first half."
Cincinnati (54-42) pulled to within three games of the Pirates (56-38) in the National League Central but remained five games behind the first-place Cardinals, who also won on Friday.
Reds starter Mike Leake gave up three runs on three solo home runs, with six hits, two walks and five strikeouts over 5 2/3 innings. He also benefited from some offensive help.
Resuming his pre-All-Star break hot hitting, Chris Heisey made it a quick 1-0 game in the first inning by hitting a 3-2 Francisco Liriano pitch for a homer to left field. Heisey has five homers this season, including three since returning from the disabled list on June 25.
In the fifth, the Reds added four more runs while sending nine men to the plate. Devin Mesoraco led off with a double but was erased at third base in a running mistake that came when Leake grounded to shortstop in a fielder's choice. After a single up the middle by Shin-Soo Choo, extending his hitting streak to 13 games, Heisey drove in another run when Leake scored on his single off of third baseman Pedro Alvarez's glove.
In a five-pitch plate appearance, Joey Votto walked to load the bases and finish Liriano. Pittsburgh summoned another lefty, Justin Wilson, to face righty-hitting Phillips, and the move backfired. Phillips lifted a three-run double to left-center field to give him 77 RBIs and a 5-0 Reds lead.
"My teammates put me in a great situation to come through, and I came through," said Phillips, who moved into a tie for the league lead in RBIs with Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt. "I try to drive runners in. I've been doing it so far this year. Hopefully I can keep it up."
It should've been a commanding lead for Leake based on how he has pitched much of the season. He came in with a 6-2 record and 1.79 ERA over his previous 11 starts.
"When you play those guys, you know they're not going to quit. We have to keep scoring and keep scoring," Reds manager Dusty Baker said.
Leake gave up only three hits over his first five innings, and benefited from double plays to end the fourth and fifth.
Pittsburgh powered its way back into the game in the sixth. Starling Marte led off by hitting a 2-2 pitch to right-center field for a homer. Two batters later, with one out, Andrew McCutchen drove an 0-1 pitch to left-center field for another home run.
"Too bad we weren't able to jump on them earlier than the time that we did," McCutchen said.
Another two batters later, with two outs, Russell Martin added a third solo homer with a drive to left field that abruptly ended Leake's night with only a two-run lead.
"Leake was masterful until either the heat or a monkey jumped on his back and he started getting the ball up," Baker said. "His pitch count was still relatively low, but he had run the bases a couple of times."
Reliever Logan Ondrusek replaced Leake and prevented more damage, even after giving up hits to his first two batters. In the seventh, Alfredo Simon gave up a leadoff single and one-out walk. Lefty Manny Parra entered with two outs and struck out the lefty-hitting Alvarez with a nice 1-2 breaking ball that faded outside.
In the eighth, after entering with one out, Sam LeCure walked first batter Gaby Sanchez but got away when Jordy Mercer bounced into a double play. Aroldis Chapman closed out the ninth for his 22nd save.
"All the guys did their job," Baker said. "When a guy kind of wavered, the next guy came in and picked him up."
Pittsburgh's bullpen did a solid job to keep the Reds quiet after Liriano, but store this in your memory bank: it leads the NL in innings pitched this season. That could come back to haunt down the road. Cincinnati's relievers are ranked 11th in innings.
For the Reds, it's the start of a tough 17-game stretch that begins with three games vs. the Pirates and continues with an 11-game West Coast road trip, followed by three games vs. the Cardinals at home.
"I think we go into every series wanting to sweep the series," Parra said. "You win the first one, it keeps that opportunity still there. So it is huge. We'll come out tomorrow, try to win again and keep gaining ground. All these games against the opponent who is ahead of you are huge."