CINCINNATI — The NL Central leaders left town with one intention — bring back a title.
The Cincinnati Reds' playoff push slowed a bit Thursday, when Rodrigo Lopez held their league-leading offense in check for seven innings of Arizona's 3-1 victory. The Reds hit the road with a comfortable lead and a chance to clinch a playoff spot during their nine-game trip to Houston, Milwaukee and San Diego.
The Reds went 4-3 on a homestand against the league's two worst clubs — Pittsburgh and Arizona — to move themselves a few wins away from their first playoff appearance since 1995.
"We're getting close," said Edinson Volquez (3-3), who is trying to be part of the playoff rotation. "We don't have that many left. If we win the series in Houston, it will be real exiting. We'll be really close."
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Close enough that they no longer worry about St. Louis, the one team with any chance of catching them.
"We're in a good situation," said Jonny Gomes, who drove in Cincinnati's run off Lopez (6-14). "We don't have to scoreboard-watch, we really don't. We've done a good job of keeping our eyes on the prize."
The Reds have such a big lead — eight games over St. Louis to start the day — that they can consider options for their playoff rotation. Volquez is trying to pitch his way into it.
The 2008 All-Star had reconstructive elbow surgery last summer and is still rounding into form. He returned to the rotation in July but was so inconsistent that he got sent to the minors for two starts to fix his flaws. In two starts back, he's been better.
Last Saturday, he allowed only one hit in seven shutout innings against Pittsburgh. He gave up six hits and three runs in 62⁄3 innings against Arizona, throwing a pair of wild pitches. He also fanned seven, although that wasn't so noteworthy — the Diamondbacks are about to break the major-league record for strikeouts in a season.
Volquez walked the first two batters to open the fifth, then gave up a run-scoring double to Gerardo Parra. Singles by Stephen Drew and Kelly Johnson made it 3-1.
"I felt good today," said Volquez, who left after 85 pitches. "I feel I'm getting everything together."
■ The Reds traded right-handed reliever Enerio Del Rosario to Houston for cash. The 24-year-old appeared in nine games with Cincinnati during the first half of the season, posting a 2.08 ERA.