Reds eye playoff spot in finale with Cubs

Cincinnati wins leader Johnny Cueto gets another chance to end a brief tailspin on Thursday when the Reds return to Wrigley Field aiming to lock up a playoff spot in the finale of a three-game series with the host Chicago Cubs.

Cueto was included in many National League Cy Young Award discussions after he improved to 17-6 with a 5-2 defeat of the Arizona Diamondbacks on Aug. 28 - but has since dropped three consecutive starts to fall behind Washington's Gio Gonzalez and New York's R.A. Dickey.

Cueto has failed to last five innings in two of the three starts and has combined to allow 14 runs on 26 hits in 15 1/3 innings against Philadelphia, Houston and Miami.

He's 7-6 in 17 career starts against the Cubs, with the most recent matchup coming on Aug. 18 and ending in a 5-3 win after he allowed three hits and two runs in eight innings at Cincinnati.

He also tossed eight innings six days earlier against the Cubs at Wrigley, allowing three hits and no runs in a 3-0 Reds win.

Cueto is 8-6 in 17 road starts in 2012.

He's opposed by 28-year-old lefty Jason Berken, who makes his second start in his second appearance with the Cubs.

A 2006 draftee of the Baltimore Orioles, Berken debuted in the majors with them in 2009 and was with them through earlier this season - making one relief appearance on May 7 in a 14-3 loss to Texas.

The Cubs picked him up on waivers in early September and immediately put him to work in a Sept. 15 start against Pittsburgh, in which he allowed two earned runs on eight hits in four innings of a loss.

Berken has faced the Reds once, in relief, in his career, allowing a run on two hits in an inning with a walk and two strikeouts.

On Wednesday, Drew Stubbs knocked in the game-winning run in the 11th inning to lift the Reds to a 6-5 win over the Cubs and cut his team's magic number to clinch at least a wild card spot to one.

Cincinnati's magic number to claim the NL Central title dropped to three.

Facing Alberto Cabrera (0-1) with two outs, Brandon Phillips lifted a fly ball to right field, but the ball skipped off David DeJesus' glove and Phillips took second.

Stubbs followed with a line drive single to left field to score Phillips.

The Cubs had the bases loaded in the 10th, but couldn't get a run home. Starlin Castro singled then moved up to third on heads-up base running when Luis Valbuena dropped a fly ball in between three Reds fielders.

Following a Welington Castro strike out, Brett Jackson walked to load the bases, but Logan Ondrusek (5-2) got pinch-hitter Steve Clevenger to ground out to end the threat.

Jonathan Broxton retired the side in order in the bottom of the 11th to pick up his fourth save as a Red.

Stubbs finished 3-for-5 and scored three runs and Joey Votto went 2-for-4 with three RBI for the Reds, who were without manager Dusty Baker.

Prior to the game, Baker visited a Chicago-area hospital for chest X-rays to rule out pneumonia, according to a team spokesman.

"I guess the good thing is it's not pneumonia, but the bad thing is he's got an irregular heartbeat," Cincinnati trainer Paul Lessard said. "So basically they're going to keep him over at the hospital and run some more tests in the morning before he is set free."

Alfonso Soriano clubbed a two-run homer and Castro had four hits and drove in a run for Chicago, which has lost three in a row.

"We battled and battled back after being down, but we have to get a little better in situations of making contact and cutting our swings down in bigger situations," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said.

The Reds won nine of the first 13 games between the teams in 2012, including three of four in a series from Aug. 17-19 in Cincinnati.