CINCINNATI — The thing about baseball is that you can start a homestand by sweeping three games from your most hated rival, the team you have to beat to win your division, the team that all but owned you a year ago.
That's what the Cincinnati Reds did by sweeping three straight from the St. Louis Cardinals last weekend.
But the thing about baseball is that you can end that homestand by losing back-to-back games to a team that, on paper, you have no business losing back-to-back games to.
"Hey," said Reds Manager Dusty Baker, "it just shows that anybody can beat you, no matter who they are or what they are in the standings."
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It's not like the Pittsburgh Pirates are last in the National League Central. But the Buccos haven't posted a winning record since 1992. They are 20-23 this year after beating the Reds 5-0 on Wednesday and 5-3 on Thursday. In six games this year with the Reds, Pittsburgh has won five.
"It was still a good homestand," said Baker afterward, his team finishing up 5-2 after those three wins over the Angry Red Birds and then two over the Cubs.
But now it's time to go on the road.
"Probably our toughest road trip all year," said outfielder Jay Bruce, after stroking a pair of homers.
Busy packing in the clubhouse, the Reds were ready to catch a plane to Cleveland for a three-game set with the Indians. From there, it's on to Philadelphia for four games with the Phillies. Then the Reds finish up with three more in Atlanta.
The Braves are 25-20. Picked as the NL favorite to reach the World Series, the Phillies were 26-16 heading into Thursday's games. And Cleveland? The surprising Indians have the best record in baseball, 26-14 before Thursday's games.
"They're playing well," said Baker, "and we're playing well."
The Reds didn't play all that well Thursday. Starter Johnny Cueto needed 94 pitches to make it through five innings.
"He was missing the spots he would normally hit," catcher Ramon Hernandez said.
Brandon Phillips was thrown out trying to steal second base in the fourth inning, then thrown out when trying to stretch a single into a double in the seventh.
"Aggressiveness is fine, but at the same time there were no outs and it's a 4-1 game," Baker said. "I know he was trying to make something happen, but it wasn't the appropriate time to try to make something happen."
On the homestand, however, the Reds made plenty happen. They took three from their archrivals the Cardinals, a sweep so sour for the visitors they were complaining before they left — pitcher Cris Carpenter groused about the condition of the mound at Great American Ball Park on Sunday — and after they had moved on to Philadelphia.
Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa, who missed the series here because of a bout of shingles, didn't like it when the Reds' Hall of Fame play-by-play man, Marty Brennaman, referred to St. Louis as being perhaps "the most disliked team in baseball," much as Phillips did last year.
"He earned that right to get into the Hall of Fame," shot back La Russa. "And now he ought to keep earning that respect instead of abusing it."
The Reds have a chance to earn some more respect over the next 10 days. Cleveland is 15-4 at home. The Reds are likely to see Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee the final two games in Philadelphia. And Atlanta just took two of three from the Phillies.
"Those are three really good teams," Bruce said. "But we're good, too. If we play well, we'll be fine."
Now if they could just beat the Pirates.