CHICAGO -- Imagine coming back from a long layoff at work to a large stack of unfinished paperwork. That's sort of like the rude welcome Reds relievers Logan Ondrusek and Nick Christiani experienced.
Ondrusek, who hadn't pitched in 10 days, surrendered three runs in the sixth and Christiani, taking the mound for the first time in five days, gave up two runs in the seventh. In all, a struggling Cubs offense scored five of its eight runs and hit two of its three homers off the pair of relievers to power their way to an 8-4 victory before 32,966 on Saturday at Wrigley Field.
If there's one negative that has come from the Reds' solid starting pitching of late, it's the challenge of keeping relievers fresh with live action. Reds manager Bryan Price said Ondrusek would be the last to use his long layoff as an excuse in an excuse-free clubhouse, but rustiness may have played a factor in the relievers' rough outings.
"It's been 10 days since he's pitched in a game," Price said of Ondrusek. "He's thrown in the bullpen a lot and had a chance to stay sharp that way. There's nothing like competition. Competition is really how you keep yourself prepared."
The loss snapped the Reds' three-game winning streak, their only winning streak of the season, and set up Sunday as the rubber match. Cincinnati took two of three from the Pirates earlier in the week, its only series victory of the season.
Reds starter Tony Cingrani struggled early Saturday, but recovered to last five innings, no small accomplishment considering that he walked three, allowed three runs and threw 70 pitches through the first three innings.
The Reds are two games into to a stretch of 17 straight contests without a day off, and therefore can't afford to have their bullpen taxed.
"The things is, with a five-inning start, things can always be worse," Price said. We could have been into our bullpen in the second, third or fourth inning. And that, especially early in a long stretch of games, can really hurt you. [Cingrani] was able to battle and keep himself in the game -- that was big, throw up a couple of zeros at the end."
Since tossing seven shutout innings in his first start against the Cardinals, Cingrani has lasted four, 6 1/3 and now five innings in his past three starts. A lack of command has lead to inefficient outings.
"Yeah, I've been battling myself the last couple starts and just trying to find that command and consistent mechanics. It just hasn't been working well the last couple starts," Cingrani said.
"[Cingrani's] got a special fastball, in that there's a lot of swings and misses on it, and that being said, it's got to be on the plate to get swings," Price said. "What we've had a couple of times has been a high pitch count that's gotten him out of the ballgame, not necessarily a ton of runs, but it's been a fact that he hasn't been terribly efficient with his pitches.
"And they laid off some tough pitches. He just wasn't the same guy we've seen most of the time here in Cincinnati -- just a little sporadic with his location."
The Reds put pressure on Cubs pitching with plenty of baserunners -- 13 to be exact -- but finished 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position. Billy Hamilton, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce combined to go 8-for-13 with two walks and three runs scored. But Brandon Phillips and Todd Frazier were a combined 0-for-9, left 11 men on base and finished 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.
"And out of all that, we got four runs," Price said. "They did some good things too, defensively, made the big pitches when they needed to and they had to manage our three- and five-hitters with some guys in scoring position, so you give them a little bit of credit, too, for making some big pitches."
Despite Cingrani's early struggles, the Reds kept battling back. The Cubs went up 3-0 on Justin Ruggiano's run-scoring single in the first, Mike Olt's solo shot in the second and Starlin Castro's RBI fielder's choice in the third, but Cincinnati crawled within a run in the sixth on Devin Mesoraco's double and Zack Cozart's groundout.
Then came Darwin Barney's first homer of the year, a two-run shot off Ondrusek with two outs in the bottom of the sixth. Junior Lake followed with an RBI single that pushed Chicago's lead to 6-2. The Reds answered back with a pair of runs in the seventh, but Welington Castillo put the game away with his two-run homer in the bottom half off of the frame off Christiani.
"This is a great-hitting team, and they don't give in," Cubs starter Edwin Jackson said. "This is an example of what our team is capable of. It's just a matter of going out and proving it on the daily basis."
For Cingrani, he'll have to prove he can pinpoint what's hurting his command and consequently, his ability to consistently go deep into games.
"I'm not entirely sure," he said of what's plaguing him mechanically. "We've just got to keep working on it and see what happens."
Joe Popely is an associate reporter at MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.