CINCINNATI – Five pitches, three homers. Jay Bruce had one of those career nights that forced him to think all the way back to Little League for an apt comparison.
The Reds? They're doing a flashback to 1995.
Bruce homered in three consecutive at-bats Friday night, matching his career high by driving in five runs, and Cincinnati beat the Chicago Cubs 7-1 to keep its two-week playoff surge going full speed.
"I just want to continue doing what I'm doing, and continue doing what we're doing because we're doing great," Bruce said. "We've got something pretty cool going on here."
The Reds got knocked out of first place in the NL Central when the St. Louis Cardinals came to town and swept a series Aug. 9-11. They've pulled themselves together quickly, going 10-3 since then. They've led the division for the last 13 days, sparking thoughts of their first playoff appearance since 1995.
The way things are going, why not?
Johnny Cueto (12-4) got his first win since serving a seven-game suspension for kicking a couple of Cardinals during a brawl in their series. The right-hander gave up a run and six hits in eight innings, striking out eight without walking a batter.
"Today was one of the best days I've pitched in the big leagues," Cueto said, through a coach serving as translator.
Bruce's first three-homer game since Little League left him with 16 this season. He's the 26th Reds player to hit three in a game — no one has more. Cincinnati's Drew Stubs also hit three against the Cubs at Wrigley Field on July 4.
It was Chicago's first loss since manager Lou Piniella retired on Sunday and was replaced by Mike Quade. The Cubs were coming off a three-game sweep in Washington.
The Reds are 11-3 against the Cubs this season, their best mark against Chicago since they went 12-5 in 2002. Thousands of blue-shirted Cubs fans were sprinkled among the crowd of 36,219, but spent most of the night listening to the home fans scream "BRUUUCE!"
The Reds lead the NL in batting, hits and runs, but had to make do without leadoff hitter Brandon Phillips, sidelined by a sore right hand. Phillips was hit by a pitch Wednesday and is expected back in a day or two.
No problem at all.
Bruce took his place at the top of the order — the first time he batted leadoff in two years — and hit a solo homer for a 2-0 lead in the third off Tom Gorzelanny (7-8). He also homered on the first pitch from the left-hander in his next at-bat, a three-run shot in the fifth.
Chris Valaika, who made his big league debut on Tuesday, followed Bruce's homer with his first in the majors. Valaika started at second base in Phillips' place.
"Nothing worked for me today," Gorzelanny said. "I made bad pitches, got behind guys. A bad outing, a real bad outing."
Gorzelanny was finished after five innings. Bruce kept going.
He hit the first pitch from Scott Maine in the seventh, rounded the bases and got a curtain call.
"A power hitter winds up in the leadoff spot and he does that," Quade said. "Bunt the ball or something, would ya?"
The 24-year-old Cueto was at the epicenter of the brawl with the Cardinals on Aug. 10, kicking pitcher Chris Carpenter and catcher Jason LaRue with his back against the netting behind home plate. Cueto lost that game 11-3 and was the only player suspended as a result of the fight.
He returned in Los Angeles last Saturday and got hit hard, giving up a career-high four homers and five runs in only three innings of an 11-4 loss. He was back in form on Friday.
"After that suspension, I was feeling too strong," Cueto said. "We worked between starts in the bullpen, and I had my rhythm back."
NOTES: Cubs RHP Carlos Zambrano is expected back on Saturday. After his start last Tuesday night, Zambrano flew to Venezuela to spend a few days with his critically ill 11-year-old nephew. ... It was Bruce's third multihomer game this season and the eighth of his career. ... The Reds put rookie RHP Mike Leake on the 15-day DL with a tired pitching shoulder, but expect him back next month. RHP Aaron Harang, sidelined since July 6 because of back spasms, is expected to start a game next week.