The Reds are heating up. Brandon Phillips is too.
It couldn't be more promising for a Cincinnati team that has its eyes set on more than just a Wild Card spot in this year's playoffs.
"It's like Satchel Paige said, 'Don't look behind you, because someone might be gaining on you. What am I going to look backwards for?'" manager Dusty Baker said. "It's just like a wide receiver. You can tell the guys that can't run because they're angling towards the end zone and they're looking back to see who can catch them. A guy who can run, he just runs to cross that finish line."
At 66-52, the Reds' playoff odds stand at 87.6 percent, according to Coolstandings.com. As the Reds enter Tuesday's game with the Cubs, they'll have spent 53 consecutive days in third place in the National League Central. But they're now just 4 1/2 games behind the first-place Pirates and 1 1/2 games behind the Cardinals.
"For those of us who were panicking and coming down on this team, we're in pretty good shape," Baker said.
With Phillips starting to heat up, Baker has another reason to be optimistic.
From June 7 to July 30, he was hitting .208 with three home runs. Phillips has homered in three of his last nine games since. His two-run shot in the seventh inning Monday provided the game's only runs in a 2-0 victory.
Baker said there's been a noticeable change in Phillips' offensive approach.
"I was talking to him about pulling off the ball," Baker said. "Most of the time when you're not hitting, you're pulling off the ball. You can see his whole face on the other side of the field over there. If we're on the road, we can see his whole face on our side of the field vs. down on the ball.
"It's easier said than done to correct. Most of the time when you're not going good, you've got a quick shoulder, a quick hip, which creates a quick head."
The Cubs may not be in playoff contention, but Tuesday is big day for starter Jeff Samardzija. He was incredible during the season's first two months, about average in June and has statistically been one of the worst pitchers in the Majors since the beginning of July, when he's posted a 6.75 ERA while allowing six homers in seven starts.
While rumors have swirled around a contract extension for the 28-year-old, he's still under club control for two more years and has openly put any concern over an extension to rest.
"I'm not that concerned," manager Dale Sveum said of Samardzija's recent struggles.
"He's been battling his split-finger, it hasn't been there hardly at all on a consistent basis. That's obviously a big thing but command of the fastball, keeping it down, getting ahead in the count when he does have it."
Homer Bailey takes the mound for the Reds on Tuesday. Bailey is in the middle of his second straight season in which he's posted a sub-4.00 ERA. It appears to have finally come together for the uber-talented 27-year-old, who has 148 strikeouts in 149 2/3 innings.
Reds: Ludwick returns
Ryan Ludwick played in his first Major League game since Opening Day on Tuesday, going 0-for-3.
Ludwick tore the labrum in his right shoulder on April 1 and underwent surgery. He said he doesn't expect to be at midseason form quite yet.
"First, we have to see what he's bringing to the table. Is he the same Luddy?" Baker added. "He's operating from behind. We certainly missed him.
"This guy is a run producer. It's hard to put him right in Jay Bruce's [fifth] spot even though Jay has had a lot of opportunities to drive in runs. It's hard to ease him into Brandon's [cleanup] spot because he's really come through in that situation."
Cubs: Honoring Banks
The Cubs will salute Hall of Famer Ernie Banks prior to Tuesday's game against the Reds at Wrigley Field. Banks has been named a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Billy Williams, Banks' teammate on the Cubs and a fellow Hall of Famer, will introduce Banks on Tuesday. The festivities were expected to begin around 6:50 p.m. CT before the Cubs face the Reds at 7:05 p.m.
No date has been set as to when Banks will receive the honor from President Barack Obama. The Medal of Freedom, established in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy, is the highest honor awarded to civilians in the United States.
• Aroldis Chapman has struck out the side in three of his last four appearances. He has 83 strikeouts in 47 1/3 innings this season.
• Kris Bryant, the Cubs' top pick in the June First-Year Player Draft and was hitting .354 at short-season Boise, was promoted on Monday to high Class A Daytona.