CHICAGO -- The Reds have been on a roll that has lasted just shy of a month. But their 10-day, nine-game road trip heading into the All-Star break against three contenders -- the Cubs, Indians and Cardinals -- is certainly a good test of whether they can sustain that into the second half.
Tyler Mahle's fantastic June is one reason the Reds have been streaking. Mahle's July began in fine fashion Friday during a 3-2 victory over the Cubs that stopped Chicago's season-high six-game win streak.
"I think all of us realize that we're a lot better than what we were at the start [of 2018]," Mahle said. "I don't think we are trying to prove anything. We're just, in my opinion, going out and kind of expecting to win at this point."
During a career-high 6 2/3 innings, Mahle allowed one earned run and five hits with two walks and four strikeouts on 102 pitches. In his last seven starts, the right-hander is 4-0 with a 2.04 ERA.
Cincinnati has won 14 of its last 18 games and is 17-6 in its last 23. That included a four-game series sweep of the Cubs at Great American Ball Park from June 21-24. The club is 36-34 since interim manager Jim Riggleman took over after a 3-15 start to the season.
"Winning is fun. We might have dug ourselves into a deeper hole than expected early this season," said center fielder Billy Hamilton, who went 3-for-3 with a walk and run scored. "The way we've been playing lately, this is us. This is the team that can compete with anybody that's out there."
With a stiff wind blowing in at Wrigley Field, Mahle felt more comfortable pitching over the plate and was aggressive. He threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of his 27 batters. Continuing a recent trend, he was using his secondary pitches and not relying as much on his four-seam fastball.
"I just knew in the back of my head that if a ball goes up in the air, the wind is going to knock it down," Mahle said. "I think the first-pitch strikes are great, especially [because] past starts I've been falling behind a lot of guys, so I'm happy that I was able to do that today."
The Reds have been prolific lately at loading the bases and doing something with the opportunity. They lead the Majors in bases loaded at-bats, runs, hits, RBIs and grand slams. With the bases loaded and no outs in the fourth inning of a scoreless game against Cubs starter Mike Montgomery, Adam Duvall hit an RBI single to center field. Scott Schebler grounded into a double play to score Joey Votto with a second run.
Hamilton led off the fifth inning with a single and went to third base on Jose Peraza's single. That enabled Hamilton to score easily on Scooter Gennett's sacrifice fly to right field to give the Reds a 3-0 lead.
In the bottom of the fifth, Willson Contreras hit a leadoff double against Mahle and later scored from third base on Albert Almora Jr.'s fielder's choice. Mahle, who tried to finish seven innings for the first time, gave up a one-out single and a two-out walk to pinch-hitter Ian Happ to end his bid.
"He really did a good job. He's just a great competitor and a composed young man," Riggleman said. "He just challenged hitters and really gave us another really good ballgame. He got deep in the game and let us use our bullpen the way we wanted to use it."
Reliever Michael Lorenzen finished the seventh and pitched into the eighth. Lorenzen allowed a one-out single to Javier Baez, who later scored on Benjamin Zobrist's sacrifice fly against closer Raisel Iglesias.
"They have a lot of confidence right now, and we saw it a couple weeks ago when we were at their place. They battled," Montgomery said. "Their offense puts up good at-bats and they have some good players. We're not going to take anyone lightly, and especially them, and especially how they're not afraid to play against us."
The Reds have won seven of Mahle's last eight starts. His last defeat came on May 20 against the Cubs. In 18 starts this season, he is 7-6 with a 3.66 ERA.
"I had a pretty good first start of the year, but then struggled," Mahle said. "Where my pitches are right now, I think they are a lot better than what I started off at."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Following Zobrist's sacrifice fly in the eighth, Riggleman took a risk by intentionally walking Kyle Schwarber to put the go-ahead run on first base and tying run on second. But Iglesias got Contreras to ground out. With a scoreless ninth, Iglesias went on to notch save No. 17, but Riggleman contemplated taking a similar chance after Happ's one-out single.
"You don't like to, that's for sure," Riggleman said. "There are certain times you do it. We had the opportunity to do it again at the end of the game and we didn't do it. If we did it with [Heyward], Baez is hitting the ball on the barrel all day. They were outs, but he's smoking the ball. So we'd be putting a speedy runner at first. The tying run would be a fast guy. I was reluctant to do it. If the count had gone 3-1, I might have done it."
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
In the sixth inning with one out, Anthony Rizzo hit a fly ball to short center field that Hamilton ran down to make a sliding catch. It looked like a routine play, but that would take his speed, quick jump and solid route for granted. According to Statcast™, it was a five-star play (14 percent catch probability), with 29.8 feet-per-second sprint speed. Hamilton covered 80 feet in 4.3 seconds. It marked Hamilton's Major League-leading fifth five-star catch of the season.
"The catch may have looked easy, but people don't understand where you're playing," Hamilton said. "Rizzo is a pull hitter and I'm in the right-center gap. I had to read that with the wind, and the sun in your eyes and stuff people outside baseball don't see. I think I might have been able to catch it standing up. I didn't want to take that chance and end up losing it in the sun standing up. It's one of those plays I love making."
When the series continues at 2:20 p.m. ET on Saturday, the Reds will look to Matt Harvey to keep a nice streak going. Now 3-0 with a 1.47 ERA in his last three outings, Harvey had his best start of 2018 in an 8-2 win over the Brewers on Sunday. He pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings with two singles, no walks and six strikeouts on only 68 pitches. It took a 54-minute rain delay to knock him out of the game. He has won three straight for the first time since 2015. Tyler Chatwood will get the start for the Cubs.