This was not the way the Milwaukee Brewers wanted to start their make-or-break final trip of the season.
An offense that has been challenged throughout the season to produce runs was no match Monday night for Cincinnati right-hander Luis Castillo, who out-pitched Brandon Woodruff as the Reds pulled away late to a 6-3 victory at Great American Ballpark.
The eighth victory in nine games for the Reds (28-27) allowed them to pull a game ahead of the fourth-place Brewers (26-27) for the final wild-card berth in the National League as well as in the Central Division standings. In failing for the seventh time this season to climb above .500, Milwaukee saw its four-game winning streak snapped.
St. Louis later lost in Kansas City, 4-1, allowing Cincinnati to pull into a virtual tie for second place in the division, with the Brewers a game behind.
Castillo limited the Brewers to four hits and one run over 6⅔ innings with nine strikeouts before turning it over to his bullpen. It won’t get any easier for Milwaukee in the remaining two games of the series with the Reds lining up their other two aces, Sonny Gray and Trevor Bauer.
Woodruff took a 1-0 lead into the sixth but surrendered a two-run homer to Eugenio Suarez on the last pitch he threw as the Reds took the lead to stay, 2-1. Cincinnati broke open the game with four runs in the eighth inning but the story of the game was Castillo being just a bit better than Woodruff.
BOX SCORE: Reds 6, Brewers 3
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“Tonight was a good baseball game,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We played well. We faced a really good pitcher. Castillo was completely on top of his game. We didn’t have many opportunities but he pitched like we wouldn’t get many opportunities against him.
“We played a good game tonight. The eighth-inning didn’t go well but it was a good, hard-fought game. It was two good pitchers on the mound and they added some late runs that made a difference but there was nothing wrong with the way we played tonight.”
Woodruff found himself in a huge jam in the second inning when Suárez led off with a four-pitch walk and Mike Moustakas jumped on a first-pitch fastball and yanked it into the right-field corner for a double, putting runners on second and third.
Woodruff caught a break when Jesse Winker lined out to Daniel Vogelbach at first, hitting it right on the screws. The Brewers starter then recorded a huge out by whiffing Brian Goodwin before retiring Freddy Galvis on a grounder to first to escape that mess.
The Reds threatened again in the bottom of the fourth when Suárez singled with one down and Moustakas drew a four-pitch walk. Woodruff then fell behind in the count, 3-0, to Winker but recovered to get him to ground into an inning-ending double play.
Beginning with Hiura’s out to end the first inning, Castillo settled in to retire 10 hitters in a row, using his devastating changeup to great effect. The string was snapped in dramatic fashion when Jedd Gyorko led off the fifth inning with a long home run to left, and on a 0-2 changeup no less.
With one down in the Cincinnati sixth, Nick Castellanos took an inside fastball the other way and into the right-field corner for a double. He advanced to third on a wild pitch during an at-bat in which Joey Votto finally grounded out to second on the eighth pitch, with the infield playing in to force Castellanos to hold at third.
Woodruff was one pitch away from getting out of another jam but put a 1-2 fastball in a bad place and Suárez hammered it out to left-center for a two-run homer that put the Reds on top, 2-1. That was the 100th and last pitch of the night for Woodruff.
“I’ve gone over it in my head a few times, about how he was able to get such a good swing off on that pitch,” Woodruff said. “I went back and watched it. I didn’t get it quite in or up as much as I would have liked but I didn’t think it was bad pitch selection.
“He’s a good hitter and that’s what big-leaguers do. They hit mistakes if you don’t make the right pitches at the right time. Earlier, I was able to make some big pitches to get out of jams. He got to a good pitch. He’s a good major-league hitter.”
The loss dropped Woodruff to 2-5 with a 3.43. He has run into some tough at-bats and some tough innings but generally has kept the Brewers in the game in his 12 starts. Still, they are 5-7 in those games, compared to last year when they went 18-4 in games he started.
“He’s pitching well; don’t mistake that,” Counsell said. “We scored one run in the first eight innings. There are other things involved in winning the game. Woody is pitching well.
“There have been some starts where it hasn’t been easy for him but he’s pitching well, absolutely. If we’re not winning his starts it’s because we’re not scoring enough runs. He’s doing his job.”
The Brewers had a chance to at least tie the game in the seventh when Gyorko worked Castillo for a one-out walk and moved to third when Jace Peterson lined a double over leftfielder Shogo Akiyama’s head. Needing to put the ball in play, Orlando Arcia struck out on a 2-2 slider, the final pitch of Castillo’s night.
Lefty Amir Garrett came on to retire pinch-hitter Tyrone Taylor on a grounder to third, and Cincinnati stayed on top.
“I liked Arcia up there; he’s been really good against Castillo (.400 batting average entering the game),” Counsell said. “He has put the ball in play against him a lot. Castillo just made some good pitches.”
The Reds broke open the game with four runs in the eighth off rookie reliever Drew Rasmussen, who surrendered a leadoff homer to Curt Casali and three-run blast by Moustakas, the former Brewers infielder. Rasmussen had not allowed a home run in his first 10 appearances in the major leagues.
“He made some mistakes and ‘Moose’ made him pay tonight,” Counsell said.
Peterson’s two-out, two-run homer in the ninth off Nate Jones accounted for the Brewers’ final runs.
“Their whole pitching staff is really good,” Woodruff said of coming out on the wrong end of his duel with Castillo. “Any time you come in against them, runs are going to be hard to come by. My main focus tonight was just go out there and try to go pitch by pitch. Even when I got into those jams, I didn’t panic. I didn’t feel like my back was against the wall.
“I just knew that if I could make a pitch here or there, I could work through it. Any time you go against (Castillo) – and I’ve faced him a lot over the years – it seems like there’s always some good games. He threw the ball really well tonight. You have to give him a lot of credit.”
TUESDAY: Brewers at Reds, 5:40 p.m. Milwaukee LHP Brett Anderson (3-3, 4.38) vs. Cincinnati RHP Sonny Gray (5-3, 3.94). TV – FS Wisconsin. Radio: AM-620.