CINCINNATI — Javier Valentin watched the ball leave his bat and fly right toward second baseman Aaron Miles, giving the pinch-hitter a momentary fright. The way the Cincinnati Reds are playing, he should have known better.
Valentin’s liner cleared the drawn-in infield and drove in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning Tuesday, sending the Reds to a 3-2 victory and a two-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals.
“It was going straight to the second baseman,” Valentin said, amazed by what had happened. “Then it went like this.”
Valentin made a curve with his hand, simulating the way the ball dodged Miles’ glove by mere inches before landing safely on the outfield grass.
“It found a hole,” Valentin said. “It’s good enough for me.”
Adam Dunn and Edwin Encarnacion added solo home runs for the Reds (19-8), who overtook the defending World Series champion Chicago White Sox for the best record in the majors.
“We can play with anybody,” Valentin said. “If we continue to play the way we’re playing now, we’re going to be there.”
He meant the playoffs, of course, a place the Reds haven’t been in 11 years. They haven’t even had a winning record the past five years, their longest such slump in a half-century.
It’s going to take a lot more to get them back to the postseason — the rotation is still a concern, and the bullpen is still inconsistent. But by taking two of three from the Astros and then the two-game series from St. Louis, the Reds felt a little confidence coming on.
Austin Kearns started the winning rally with a leadoff single off Brian Falkenborg (0-1), who was called up from Triple-A Memphis before the game. The right-hander hit Brandon Phillips with his next pitch.
After Jason LaRue’s sacrifice bunt advanced the runners, Valentin took two pitches in the dirt, then lined the game-ending single, raising his fist as he headed for first. Teammates pounded on him shortly after he touched the base.
Todd Coffey (2-0) struck out John Gall with two runners aboard in the ninth to keep it tied at 2.
The Cardinals’ starting lineup was missing Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds. Pujols, who leads the majors with 14 homers and 32 RBIs, irritated his back on a defensive play last week and got a day of rest — his first this season.
Edmonds pinch-hit in the seventh with two runners aboard and flied out.