BY JOE KAY
The Associated Press
CINCINNATI – Brandon Phillips hit a two-run homer, and the first-place Cincinnati Reds extended their best streak in seven years, beating the Chicago Cubs 7-1 Thursday night for their eighth straight victory.
The Reds are on their best roll since they won 10 in a row midway through the 1999 season, the last time they made a run at the postseason. Cincinnati lost a one-game playoff to the Mets for the NL wild card that year.
The current streak also has had a big impact on a team that’s wasn’t expected to stay in contention very long. The fading Reds opened the month of June five games behind St. Louis in the NL Central, but jumped a half-game ahead of the idle Cardinals with their latest win.
Bronson Arroyo (8-2) beat the Cubs for the third time this season. The right-hander gave up five hits, including Tony Womack’s first homer, in seven innings.
The lanky, long-haired pitcher has yet to lose at Great American Ball Park, where he’s 4-0 in six starts. The Reds got Arroyo from the Boston Red Sox in a trade for Wily Mo Pena during spring training, hoping he could significantly upgrade a rotation that was the NL’s worst last season.
He has. Arroyo leads the staff in victories, and his earned run average of 2.31 is the league’s second-best.
Kent Mercker and Esteban Yan held the Cubs without a hit over the last two innings.
For the Cubs, it was another night of futile at-bats. Chicago has lost three in a row, getting a total of 15 hits and two runs in those games.
The Cubs have lost 11 of their last 16 games overall, dropping them 12 1/2 games out of first place. At 23-36, they’ve matched their season low mark of 13 games under .500.
Chicago’s Glendon Rusch (2-6) had a breakthrough of sorts. Heading into the game, the left-hander had already faced Arroyo twice this season and lost both times. Worse, Arroyo had homered off of him in both games.
Rusch struck out Arroyo twice on Thursday, ending that part of their head-to-head domination. But Rusch fell to 0-3 in their matchups because he couldn’t handle the guys who batted right ahead of him.
Rusch gave up Phillips’ two-run homer in the fourth. David Ross, hitting in the eighth slot, followed with a solo homer that extended his hitting streak to 11 games. Ross also had a sacrifice fly.
Leadoff hitter Ryan Freel also had a solo homer off Rusch, who has given up a staff-high 16. He was demoted to the bullpen in May, and is 1-1 in two starts since rejoining the rotation. Overall, Rusch is 2-5 in seven starts this season with an 8.42 ERA.
Notes: RHP Kerry Wood is still scheduled to start Sunday. Wood was examined by Dr. Timothy Kremchek, who said that the occasional soreness in his shoulder is a normal part of his recovery from surgery last August. … Womack’s homer was his first since July 28, 2004, off Cincinnati’s Todd Van Poppel. Womack started this season with the Reds, who released him on May 2. … CF Ken Griffey Jr. was out of the Reds’ lineup for the second consecutive game because of a sore thigh, injured during a slide. He’s listed as day to day. … 3B Edwin Encarnacion also missed his second consecutive game with a mild ankle sprain. He plans to take batting practice on Friday to test it.