Chasing Milwaukee is the primary focus of the Cubs these days, but they also are keeping close tabs on San Diego, Atlanta, Philadelphia and the rest of the National League wild-card playoff contenders.
"We look at the wild card race, sure we do," manager Lou Piniella said before Friday's rain-delayed game at Great American Ball Park. "But look, it's early.
"You know what? Truthfully, the baseball season in earnest starts about now. These first four months are jockeying for position, and now the real race begins. And August is a cruel month in a lot of ways.
"The teams that play well in August are the ones that survive these things and have a real good chance at the end. This is an important stretch for us over the next 30 days or so, starting here in Cincinnati."
If Friday was the official start of the Cubs' stretch run, they started it off in wild fashion, launching a late-inning rally before falling 5-4 on Edwin Encarnacion's game-winning single off Bob Howry in the ninth.
"Tough loss, long day, tough conditions," catcher Jason Kendall said. "The bottom line is we lost."
Reds starter Bronson Arroyo kept the offense in check until the Cubs scored one run in the eighth to pull within two runs, then they tied it 4-4 off David Weathers in the ninth.
But the momentum swung back in the other direction when Jacque Jones attempted to score the go-ahead run on Mike Fontenot's one-out single off Weathers. A bare-handed pick-up in center by Ryan Freel and a perfect throw to catcher David Ross nailed Jones at the plate, preserving the tie.
Jones didn't slide and couldn't jar the ball loose in his collision with Ross.
"The guy in center field made a heck of a play, but I didn't expect our runner to be thrown out," Piniella said. "Give this guy credit in center field. He made a bare-handed play and made a heck of a throw."
Asked to elaborate, Piniella didn't pin the blame on Jones.
"Look, it was a bouncing ball, and I just assumed [he would score], nothing more," he said.
Jones was surprised the ball got in so quickly, and thought his only option was to put a shoulder into Ross.
"I got him pretty good, but he's tough," Jones said.
Trailing 4-2 in the ninth, Aramis Ramirez and Cliff Floyd singled, putting runners on first and third. After Angel Pagan pinch-ran for Floyd at first, Mark DeRosa singled on the first pitch to pull the Cubs within a run.
Jones then grounded into a force play, leaving runners at the corners with one out for Kendall, who promptly singled between third and short to tie the game 4-4. After Jones was thrown out on the Fontenot single, Alfonso Soriano lined out to second to end the inning.
Howry (5-6) came on in the ninth and gave up a leadoff single to Norris Hopper, who was bunted over to second. Encarnacion's RBI single ended it, spoiling the Cubs heroics and putting them three games behind Milwaukee.
"We were down by three and came back," Jones said. "We battled. They had a little bit more than we had at the end."
Rich Hill allowed two runs on six hits and three walks over five innings while striking out eight before leaving early after throwing 104 pitches. He left with the Cubs trailing 2-1, and Rocky Cherry gave up two runs in the sixth.
Though Hill has compiled a 2.37 earned-run average in three starts since the All-Star break, he has only one victory to show for it. He came into Friday's start with the lowest run support of any NL starter at 3.28 runs per nine innings.