This is Dusty Baker's favorite time of the year.
"When the weather gets hot like it has been, then it's hitting time," the Cubs manager said.
What he saw Monday night was his players whacking a season-high five home runs, including a pair each by Derrek Lee and Todd Walker, among 18 hits during a 9-4 trouncing of the Reds at the Great American Ball Park launching pad.
The Cubs have won seven of their last eight games to improve to 47-45 and remain poised to make a run for a National League wild-card playoff berth. They have won 14 series this season, dropped 12 and split four entering this four-game set. They lost eight games in a row before this latest surge.
"Everybody keeps talking about our [inconsistent] offense, but I still refer to the fact we are [tied for second with San Francisco] in the league in hitting," said Baker, whose team has hit 120 homers, second only to the Reds' 121. "Also, our pitching is better (ninth with a 4.22 earned-run average)."
In the last eight games Cubs starters have yielded just 12 earned runs in 612/3 innings.
"When you're getting good pitching, it makes it a little bit easier to hit too," Baker said. "Because every run means something. If the game is close, you can do more things. You can hit-and-run, you can steal. We went for six or seven games where we never had the lead [during the eight-game losing streak] and played from behind. Then everybody tries to do it himself."
Jerome Williams improved to 2-3 after yielding four runs on six hits over 62/3 innings.
"He is real key, not only key for now but key for the future too," Baker said of the right-hander acquired from the Giants on May 28 in the trade for LaTroy Hawkins. "We didn't get him only for now. We got him for now and later. Jerome has done a good job for us. The main thing is that our bullpen is rested and strong right now. That's such a big key when you're playing a lot of consecutive games."
The Cubs hopped on Reds left-hander Brandon Claussen (4-7) for back-to-back homers by Walker and Lee in the first inning to take a 2-0 lead. Walker, who was 3-for-6, extended his hitting streak to a season-high 11 games. Lee and Ramirez went back-to-back to start the third inning to make it 4-1 against the NL's worst pitching staff. Lee has a league-leading 30 homers.
Baker detects an appropriate sense of urgency in his club that fell short in its wild-card chase last year by losing seven of its last nine games.
"You can't turn it off and on when you want to. But last year was the first time in a long time for me that we started out strong (15-6) in September," Baker said. "To me, we ran out of gas. Hopefully, this year we can finish strong big time.
"It's different this year because we have our horses back. We're going to be strong down the stretch. We have only a couple guys with 100 innings(Carlos) Zambrano and (Greg) Maddux. Other than that, our guys will be lucky to get 150 innings. The name of the game is still pitching. Control is in the hands of the guy who handles the ball the most, and that's the pitcher."
The Cubs scored three times in the fourth inning after rookie Matt Murton (4-for-5) led off with an infield hit. Walker then hit a two-run homer, his sixth of the season. Ramirez delivered an RBI double to make it 7-1.
The Reds scored three runs after two outs in the seventh on a double by Felipe Lopez and a two-run homer by Rich Aurilia before Glendon Rusch took over for a tiring Williams, who threw 104 pitches on an 86-degree night.
"Getting that run support was a pitcher's dream," said Williams, who said he relied on his changeup.
The Cubs added an insurance run in the eighth on Michael Barrett's RBI single and another in the ninth on Jerry Hairston's RBI single.
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