CHICAGO -- As long as they keep getting starting pitching like this, the Reds are going to be real tough to catch in the National League Central, despite missing Joey Votto's bat.
A day after Bronson Arroyo threw eight solid innings to beat the Cubs at Wrigley Field, Johnny Cueto picked up his 15th victory by doing the same on Sunday afternoon.
Cueto was even better than Arroyo, blanking the Cubs on just three hits over his eight innings in a 3-0 win. After dropping the first game of this series to extend a season-high losing streak to five games, the Reds stormed back to take the next three. Cincinnati stayed 4 1/2 games ahead of the second-place Pirates -- who beat San Diego at home on Sunday -- and now heads home to face the Mets on Tuesday.
"They're in first place for one reason," Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano said. "They have very good pitching and have a very good bullpen."
"They say it's how you finish, and that's why I urged my guys to finish strong," Reds manager Dusty Baker said after watching his team bounce back from losing the first four games of this seven-game road trip. "We didn't start off too good [in Milwaukee], but you can't bring back those games. So, finish winning our last three, and then [we have] a much-needed off-day ... before we start another tough stretch."
After dropping his last start to the Brewers despite pitching well, Cueto made sure this one ended in victory by putting up all zeroes. He struck out just three, but worked his way out of two jams and walked only two. Baker said that neither Jonathan Broxton nor Sam LeCure were available out of the bullpen because of "soreness," so he went with fireballing closer Aroldis Chapman for a third straight game.
It didn't seem to faze Chapman in the least, after he came on in the ninth to record his 28th save and 16th in his last 16 opportunities, which established a new franchise record previously held by Jeff Shaw. After allowing a leadoff single to Darwin Barney, Chapman mowed down the heart of the Cubs' order and struck out Soriano in the process -- getting a called third strike on an 89-mph slider after firing eight straight fastballs clocked at 100 mph or faster.
Afterward, when asked if he knows his heater is overpowering whenever he steps on the mound, the 23-year old left-hander just shook his head and told his interpreter, "No, I never think of it that way."
He might not, but many others are starting to think of it that way for good reason. In this series alone, Chapman showed just how dominant he's become by fanning six of the 11 hitters he faced, including three of four in his four-out save on Friday.
"The fact that I've grown up as a pitcher [and] I'm learning to pitch better ... helps me to keep my control, and I've been doing really well so far," Chapman said of his improved command throwing strikes. "I think that's the key to being consistent."
The key to the Reds consistently winning games, even without the injured Votto at first base, is combining continued strong pitching performances with timely hitting. In this series, Ryan Ludwick continued his hot-hitting at Wrigley Field over the course of his career. On Sunday, he tacked on another home run after doubling in two on Saturday and homering into the teeth of a fierce wind on Friday.
Just as welcome of a sight in this game, however, was seeing the ball jump off Jay Bruce's bat and out in the fifth for a 2-0 lead. Baker sat down his slumping slugger in each of the previous two games in the hope it might help Bruce hit the reset button. It might have worked.
The homer, coming off Cubs left-handed starter Brooks Raley in the fifth, was Bruce's first hit in 14 at-bats. He was also hitting just .211 against lefties coming into the game. Bruce grounded out in his first at-bat of the day, but in the fifth he came to the plate after Todd Frazier became the first Reds player to reach base against Raley with one out.
Bruce worked the count to 2-0 before drilling an 87-mph fastball into the first couple of rows behind the ivy-covered wall in right for his 22nd home run.
"Really, it was just good to get runs on the board for [Cueto]," Bruce said. "Everything's going to take care of itself. I just need to have quality at-bats and put myself in a position to be successful. That's all I can worry about."
Raley then allowed a double to Miguel Cairo, who stole third before Ryan Hanigan walked and got sacrificed to second by Cueto. Raley (0-2) got out of the jam by inducing a grounder to third by Zack Cozart, but the damage had been done.
Ludwick added his 21st homer of the season in the sixth, a solo shot to left, and suddenly Cueto had a 3-0 lead. He did get into a little trouble in both the third and sixth, but worked his way out of both situations.
Each time, the Cubs got the first two hitters on base, only to watch Cueto wriggle off the hook.
In the third, he nabbed Brett Jackson at third for the first out by pouncing on Raley's sacrifice attempt before fanning David DeJesus and getting Darwin Barney to fly out. In the sixth, after Adrian Cardenas and DeJesus both singled, Cueto got Barney and Anthony Rizzo to hit into soft grounders.
Barney's speed down the line negated the double play on his, but Rizzo's went straight to Cozart near the bag at second for an easy step-and-throw and inning-ending double play.
"I was feeling really good today with all my pitches," Cueto said. "I felt like I was locating my pitches away well, so when I got into [those situations], I thought, 'OK, this is a double-play situation for me, I've got to get it done.'"
Both times he did, which helped him continue to lower the 1.72 ERA he had in day games this season by steadily working his way through a Cubs lineup stacked with six left-handed hitters.
Brian Hedger is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.