CINCINNATI—On paper, the matchup did not portend well for the Cubs on Thursday night. On the field at Great American Ball Park, the results are in, and it wasn't pretty.
Cubs starter Glendon Rusch, who had served up six home runs in two previous starts this season against the Reds, yielded three more in just 32/3 innings of a 7-1 loss to the National League Central leaders.
Cincinnati, opening a 10-game homestand, won its eighth straight to gain a half-game lead over idle St. Louis. Reds starter Bronson Arroyo improved to 8-2 while thwarting the Cubs on five hits before giving way to Kent Mercker in the eighth.
Cubs manager Dusty Baker bemoaned the inconsistent nature of his starting pitchers.
"Offense is always Jekyll and Hyde," he said. "The thing you don't want to be Jekyll and Hyde in is that you want your starting pitching to be consistent. You can win close games, and you can win big-scoring games. But what it all boils down to is starting pitching."
Rusch (2-6, 7.29 ERA), who earned his second victory last weekend in St. Louis with a respectable outing, took another beating against the Reds. He is 1-6 in 20 career games against them, including 11 starts.
A Cubs trip that began 3-1 has taken an ominous turn.
"It looked good when we started with [winning] two of three against St. Louis," said Cubs first baseman Todd Walker, who had two hits Thursday night. "As you saw, when a team loses a big guy like [Albert] Pujols, it's very difficult."
The Cubs lost two of three in Houston before dropping Thursday night's game.
Arroyo, who lowered his ERA to 2.31, beat the Cubs for the third time this season.
"They have a good team over there now; they have a great thing going," Walker said. "They had their second-best pitcher on the mound, and Arroyo is always tough."
The Cubs took a 1-0 lead on Tony Womack's first-inning homer against the team that released him May 2. It was Womack's first home run since July 28, 2004, when he was with the Cardinals.
The Reds, enjoying their longest winning streak in seven years, tied the game 1-1 in the bottom of the first when Felipe Lopez singled and scored on Rich Aurilia's double into the right-center field gap.
Ryan Freel hit his fourth homer of the season to lead off the third inning for a 2-1 Reds lead. Rusch gave up back-to-back homers to Brandon Phillips and David Ross in a three-run fourth, in which right-hander David Aardsma took over to register the third out.
"I left two pitches up, especially to Ross and Phillips," Rusch said. "And the pitch to Freel I mean, up and away, and he hit it out to right field. You don't see him do that very often."
The Cubs' starting pitchers rank last in the league in ERA. Rusch, for one, has been particularly inconsistent.
Baker was concerned about burning out his bullpen because of recent short outings from his starters.
Will Ohman, Roberto Novoa and Bobby Howry followed Aardsma on Thursday.
"I just hope we don't destroy our bullpen, because right now that is our strength," Baker said.