HOUSTON – The Houston Astros moved within one defeat of their third straight 100-loss season on Monday night after the Cincinnati Reds beat them 6-1.
Instead of focusing on the looming mark, the Astros chose to think about how they can get better in the last few games of the season.
"I feel like we've been playing better," first baseman Chris Carter said. "It's just looking at the season as how we finish it instead of how we started it as a whole. Just looking to finish strong and keep playing good games. Hopefully that rolls into next year and we have a good season after that."
The Astros were 56-106 in 2011 and dropped to 55-107 last year, their final season in the National League.
Johnny Cueto threw five scoreless innings in his return from the disabled list and Zack Cozart homered and drove in four runs to help the Reds to the win.
Pitching for the first time since straining the muscle below his right shoulder on June 28, Cueto (5-2) allowed five hits and struck out five with one walk for the win.
Houston manager Bo Porter said Cueto certainly didn't look like someone who hadn't pitched since June.
"(When) a guy misses a lot of time you think to yourself that maybe he's going to be rusty, maybe he's going to have a hard time finding the strike zone," Porter said. "But he didn't have any of those little effects."
Cincinnati moved five games ahead of Washington for second NL wild card.
Cozart got things going for the Reds with his two-run shot to left field in the second inning. He added a two-RBI single in the fourth.
Cueto lasted 82 pitches on Monday, and didn't allow more than one base runner in an inning until the fifth when Carlos Corporan and L.J. Hoes hit back-to-back singles with one out.
Brandon Barnes grounded into a force play that left Hoes out at second before Cueto walked Jonathan Villar, eliciting a coaching visit to the mound.
Cueto escaped the jam when he struck out Jose Altuve to end the inning and his night. Cueto pumped his fist before slowly walking off the mound.
"He made some good pitches, and ended up getting him to expand his zone once he got to two strikes and got the big out," Porter said of the strikeout of Altuve.
"We had some chances to chop away at their lead, and unfortunately their pitchers made good pitches during those times."
Erik Bedard (4-11) allowed four hits and four runs in four innings in his return from a stint in the bullpen for the loss.
It was his first start since Aug. 21 and the loss leaves him without a win as a starter since June 26. He made three relief appearances between starts and picked up a win in the second one.
Jay Bruce singled to start the second before Cozart's two-out homer to the Crawford Boxes in left field gave Cincinnati a 2-0 lead.
A single by Joey Votto followed by consecutive walks by Bruce and Ryan Ludwick loaded the bases with no outs in the fourth inning. Cozart's line drive to right field scored two to make it 4-0. Ludwick was out at third on the play.
Lucas Harrell replaced Bedard for the fifth inning and walked Shin-Soo Choo and Votto with a single by Brandon Phillips in between to load the bases.
Bruce's single skipped past Harrell and into shallow center field to pad the lead — making it 6-0.
Alfredo Simon replaced Cueto for the sixth inning and Trevor Crowe greeted him with a double. He advanced to third on a fly out and scored on a groundout to make it 6-1.
NOTES: Cincinnati's Mike Leake opposes Jordan Lyles when the series continues on Tuesday. ... LHP Sean Marshall was reinstated from the 60-day DL on Monday. He had been out since May 24 with shoulder tendinitis. RHP Kyle Lotzkar and RHP Josh Ravin were designated for assignment to make room for Cueto and Marshall on the roster. ... Houston All-Star C Jason Castro (right knee) was out of the lineup again as doctors want to give him a few more days to see how he responds to treatment. Castro injured his knee Sept. 2. ... Votto extended his hitting streak in Houston to 22 games.