The Reds have scored 17 runs over their past nine games, and on Friday afternoon, they'll face the pitcher who started their low-scoring streak: Cubs right-hander Carlos Villanueva.
Cincinnati's slumping offense heads to Chicago to face Villanueva and the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Villanueva held the Reds to two runs on three hits and two walks over 8 1/3 innings on April 23, and he only needed 99 pitches to get through that outing.
"He was throwing a bunch of stuff. That's how he pitches," Reds manager Dusty Baker said after that game. "He kept you off-balance. Those guys generally give you more trouble earlier in the season before you get your timing. You can't take anything from him, but we'll see a little bit later."
Indeed, Cincinnati will get another crack at Villanueva on Friday, but the Reds' lineup has been inconsistent, at best, since beating the Cubs, 5-4, on April 22.
That was especially true during the Reds' road trip through Washington and St. Louis, where they hit a combined .187 (41-for-219) and scored only 14 runs. That stretch included a brutal 2-for-56 skid with only one run scored during Cincinnati's first two games in Washington.
Villanueva is off to a hot start to 2013, though he suffered his first loss and allowed four runs in his last start. But he took a one-hitter into the sixth inning, retired 14 of the first 15 batters he faced and didn't give up more than two runs in any of his first four starts.
The Reds won the series last week, 2-1, but all the games were close, and two went to extra innings. Plus, the Cubs are settled in at Wrigley Field now, as this series continues a long, 10-game homestand.
"We know we're at home for quite a while and have to take advantage of being at home," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "We have to separate ourselves and get back to the .500 mark and move on from there. This is the time to do it."
With that in mind, the Reds could use a solid start from right-hander Mike Leake. He's coming off his worst start of the season against the Nationals on Friday, when he lasted only three innings and gave up four runs (three earned) on six hits and three walks.
"Once I got ahead, they were kind of making me throw the pitch they wanted, so I wasn't able to put them away or I was getting behind," Leake said Friday. "It was a combination of both: They had a good plan, and I wasn't attacking them completely."
But Leake put together two strong performances before that, a pair of seven-inning outings against the Phillies and Cubs. He held the Cubs to two runs on eight hits and two walks on April 22. With rookie Tony Cingrani impressing thus far, and ace Johnny Cueto expected to return from the disabled list in a week or two, Friday wouldn't be a bad time for Leake to recapture that form.
Reds: Cueto ready for rehab assignment
• Assuming he passes a medical checkup in Cincinnati, Cueto will begin his Minor League rehab assignment Friday with Double-A Pensacola, then start for Class A Dayton next Wednesday. Cueto was placed on the disabled list on April 15 and is expected to make only two rehab appearances, although there's a chance he could throw more.
"He'll be happy wherever he's going," Baker said. "He's champing at the bit. He looked pretty good [in his bullpen session]. He didn't have any soreness afterwards."
• Right fielder Jay Bruce went 2-for-4 with a triple Wednesday, a possible sign that he's ready to break out of his recent slump. Bruce entered Wednesday hitting just 6-for-27 in the first seven games of the Reds' road trip.
Cubs: Garza ready for second rehab start
• Right-hander Matt Garza (strained left lat) said Thursday that everything went well in his first Minor League rehab start and repeated that he's ready for his second outing. Garza threw 2 2/3 innings Wednesday for Double-A Tennessee, allowing a run on a hit and two walks with no strikeouts.
Garza hasn't pitched in the Majors since July 21. He was shut down last season due to right elbow problems. The Cubs have said they want Garza to make at least three Minor League rehab starts, but he wouldn't give a timetable for his return.
"I can't predict when [he'll be back], I'm just going to say I'm looking forward to five days from yesterday," Garza said. "When we get to No. 3 -- and it might even be No. 4 -- when we get to No. 3, we'll make a decision. Right now, I'm looking forward to No. 2."
• While the Reds struggled to hit on the road, their pitchers put up a collective 3.41 ERA (22 earned runs in 58 innings) on the seven-game road swing, including a 2.38 mark (nine earned runs in 34 innings) over their past four games.
• Cubs third basemen have hit seven homers in 28 games, the most in the Majors and more than half of the 12 they hit last year. Luis Valbuena has accounted for five of those home runs, and Cody Ransom hit the other two.