CINCINNATI -- On the eve of another end-of-summer showdown against the Cardinals with playoff implications, one wonders which Reds team will show up at Busch Stadium.
Will it be the bunch that went on a tear by winning eight of nine after being roughed up by the Cardinals the last time at Great American Ball Park? Or will it be the group that was silenced by a sub.-500 Brewers club in a 3-1 defeat in Cincinnati on Sunday?
"We were playing well coming into this," Reds shortstop Zack Cozart said after the Reds dropped two of three to the Brewers. "We beat a good Diamondbacks team three out of four. I thought we were starting to turn the corner. It's two out of three. The Brewers aren't having a great year, but are still a tough team to play. We still control our own destiny. We play the Cardinals a lot. We play Pittsburgh at the end of the year. We've just got to right the ship."
Brewers starter Marco Estrada entered with a 4.80 ERA on the season and a 4.24 ERA in eight previous appearances -- including four starts -- vs. the Reds. On Sunday, he worked a one-hitter over seven scoreless innings. Estrada had only three baserunners all afternoon.
Cincinnati put a promising first inning together against Estrada, only to see it come apart on a baserunning miscue. Shin-Soo Choo led off with a single to right field and notched career stolen base No. 100 when he swiped second with Joey Votto batting and one out. Choo then stole third base as Votto walked, and the ball rolled away as Choo slid feet-first and no one retrieved it. Votto alertly took second base standing on the play.
Brandon Phillips followed with a flyout to center field. Choo feigned tagging up and was headed back to third base when Carlos Gomez's throw overshot catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Estrada backed up on the play and tossed to the plate as Choo bolted for home. Choo did not slide or initiate contact with Lucroy and was tagged out to end the inning.
"We knew the guy has an outstanding arm out there," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "It looks bad, because the ball got away from him. The ball hopped right back to the pitcher. I was surprised, because usually it caroms one way or the other. [Estrada] was in proper position."
From that point, Estrada cruised as he retired 15 batters in a row, including a stretch of six straight strikeouts, until Choo drew a four-pitch walk with two outs in the sixth.
"I made a couple mistakes, and it was hit hard at times, but luckily, it was just hit at someone," Estrada said. "I got away with a couple, but for the most part, we kept them down and had a couple swings and misses."
During Estrada's dominant stretch, the Reds only made two outs on balls hit out of the infield. Five of the righty's season-high nine strikeouts came on changeups.
"He had us eating out of his hand," Baker said. "This was the best changeup we've seen in a long time. We knew it was coming. They knew it was coming. That was similar to Mario Soto's changeup when I was facing him."
Greg Reynolds, taking the injured Tony Cingrani's spot in the rotation, turned in a serviceable performance, allowing two runs and five hits over six innings with two walks and two strikeouts. In the Milwaukee second inning, Reynolds plunked leadoff batter Gomez. With one out, Caleb Gindl attacked a 1-2 cut fastball for a two-run homer to right field.
"I was able to slow it down and make a pitch when I had to," Reynolds said. "I got myself behind in the counts and [threw] a little bit more balls than I'm used [to]. I'd definitely like to do a better job at executing early."
The decision was made to lift Estrada after 100 pitches with a three-run lead, despite having a one-hit shutout in progress. It almost backfired.
Against reliever Brandon Kintzler, Devin Mesoraco banged a leadoff single to center field, followed by Ryan Ludwick's pinch-hit lined single to right field. Cozart grounded to third base and beat out a double play by a half-step to put runners on the corners. But Chris Heisey and Choo both swung and missed for strikeouts to end the threat. Against Jim Henderson, Votto put the Reds on the scoreboard with his 20th homer of the season, but that was it.
"I think, when we lose at this point to any team, we feel it's a missed opportunity, because we feel like we're one of the best teams in the league," Reds right fielder Jay Bruce said. "Bottom line, it comes down to having to play better."
That better start on Monday against the Cardinals, who are 2 1/2 games ahead of the third-place Reds in the National League Central. Seven of the Reds' next 10 games will be played vs. St. Louis. They have gone 3-24-2 in series at Busch Stadium since 2003.
"You had an idea that to get to the road to the championship, you had to go through St. Louis," Baker said. "It didn't start this year. The only thing is, now we have a third member on the road to a championship, which is Pittsburgh. That doesn't change anything. We've still got to beat them. We haven't beat them very much of late, but things could change. You see some teams beating them now that you wouldn't think would beat them."