As the season winds down, the opportunities for the Reds to reach the top of the National League Central become fewer and fewer. Suddenly, winning a series isn't enough, as any loss represents a wasted chance.
On Wednesday in Houston, the Reds will look to avoid letting a crucial win slip away and try to complete a three-game sweep of the Astros at Minute Maid Park.
While Washington hovers 4 1/2 games behind Cincinnati in the chase for the second Wild Card spot, the Reds are right on the tails of the Cardinals and the Pirates in the division race. St. Louis holds a 2 1/2-game lead on Cincinnati for first place, while the Reds enter Wednesday just 1 1/2 games behind the Pirates for second place and home field advantage in the Wild Card.
Including the series finale against the Astros, the Reds have just 10 games left in the regular season, and they'll turn to a pitcher making his fourth start of the year in a pivotal situation on Wednesday.
After making his first start since 2011 in a doubleheader on July 23, right-hander Greg Reynolds joined the Reds a second time to fill in for the injured Tony Cingrani for two starts at the end of August. When Cingrani's lower back issues acted up again on Sept. 10 against the Cubs, Reynolds came on in relief and gave up three earned runs in 1 2/3 innings.
Reynolds was much better in his regular role as a starter on Aug. 31, going eight innings and allowing three runs on seven hits without a walk against the Rockies.
"I feel like I'm on a good roll," Reynolds said after his start in Colorado. "All these games are big for us right now."
The games aren't as big for the Astros, who reached 100 losses for the third straight season on Tuesday. However, manager Bo Porter is using the final weeks of the season to evaluate players.
That includes starting pitching, and Houston has gone with a six-man rotation to look at potential future starters. On Wednesday, it will be right-hander Brad Peacock, who is 5-5 with a 5.27 ERA. His last start came a week ago, when he surrendered just one run on three hits and a walk in six innings against the Mariners.
Peacock said the extra rest has left him fresh for each start, and he's shown it by winning each of his last two games by giving up just three combined runs in 13 innings.
"My command has been better," Peacock said of his recent success. "Mostly getting my offspeed [pitches] over for strikes. That's what I've been working on."
Reds: Cozart's focus on approach paying off
For what he estimated was the first time in his career, Reds shortstop Zack Cozart has spent the last two months focusing on improving his approach. The attempt to fix whatever was going wrong at the plate began around the time Cozart was batting .235 through his first 97 games of the season.
In the 44 games since then, dating back to July 30, Cozart has been much improved, batting .305 with three homers and 26 RBIs. Seven of those RBIs have coming in the first two games in Houston, including three on Tuesday.
Cozart said focusing on his new task of driving the ball the other way has helped him clear his head at the plate, and the strategy has been effective.
"I'm going to pull balls. I can pull the ball with anybody," Cozart said. "If they throw it middle, in or whatever, if I'm in the right spot, I'm going to pull it. If I just stay with my approach to right-center like I have the past couple of months, I feel pretty good out there."
Astros: Castro's season done
Jason Castro's season came to an end before he could take the field for the Astros' 150th game on Tuesday night, as the All-Star catcher was placed on the disabled list with a sore right knee.
After having a cyst drained from his knee on Sept. 3, Castro had played in two games as a designated hitter. Porter said the injury isn't anything serious, but he also said the main priority was to have Castro at 100 percent for next season. Instead of taking the chance it could get worse, Castro's season ended with him batting .276 with 18 home runs and 56 RBIs in 120 games.
"No, it's not really a disappointment," Castro said. "It's something you can't really help. This is going to be the best option moving forward. It's something we wanted to get cleared up before the offseason."
• Outfielder Robbie Grossman is expected to miss his 14th straight game on Wednesday, as he is still recovering from a strained right oblique suffered while swinging two weeks ago.
"I'm feeling better," Grossman said. "I'll probably swing [Wednesday] and go from there. I'll just hit some balls in the cage."
• Reds first baseman Joey Votto extended his hitting streak at Minute Maid Park to 23 games on Tuesday, marking the longest such streak in stadium history.
• After leaving Houston, the Reds will enjoy an off-day before a crucial closing stretch in which they play the Pirates six times in the final nine games.
• The Astros have played the Reds more than any other opponent (840 games), and they'll look for their 400th win against Cincinnati (399-441-1) on Wednesday.
Jeremy Warnemuende is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.