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Preview: Phillies Host Red Hot Reds

(Sports Network) - A strong finish to their 11-game road trip will have the Cincinnati Reds leading the National League Central heading into the All-Star break.

The Philadelphia Phillies, meanwhile, now need to erase their largest deficit for first place in the NL East since 2007.

The two clubs do battle tonight in the opener of a four-game series at Citizens Bank Park.

The Reds are 5-2 on their swing after taking the rubber match of a three-game series with the Mets, 3-1, on Wednesday. Brandon Phillips and Chris Heisey both homered and Phillips added a run-scoring double as well.

That was more than enough for Bronson Arroyo, who allowed just a run over eight strong innings as the Reds increased their lead over the second-place Cardinals to three games.

"Sometimes you just get comfortable with a team. As it heats up, and we get closer to August, I feel like I have good stuff," said Arroyo.

While the Reds are at the top of their division, the Phillies dropped two of three to the Braves to fall six games back of first-place Atlanta. It is Philadelphia's largest deficit for first place since it trailed the Mets by 6 1/2 games on Sept. 13, 2007. The Phils did rally to overtake New York to win the first of three straight NL East titles.

The 2008 World Series champs were dealt a 7-5 loss by the Braves on Wednesday. Ryan Howard had given his club a 3-1 lead with a two-run homer in the fifth inning, his first home run in 11 games, but the Braves posted six runs in the sixth inning to go ahead for good.

Shane Victorino also homered and Jamie Moyer allowed seven runs, including three homers, over 5 1/3 innings as Philadelphia lost for the sixth time in eight games.

"We gotta start winning series, we gotta start playing better," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. "If we're a second half team, like people say we are, it's time for us to kick it into gear."

Philly will try to gain some momentum before the All-Star break behind Kyle Kendrick, who is coming off the first complete game of his career. That outing, though, may have been the product of good run support, as the right- hander allowed four runs -- three earned -- on 10 hits in a 12-4 victory over the Pirates on Saturday.

Kendrick has pitched to a 5.59 earned run average over his last three starts and is 5-3 on the season with a 4.70 ERA. The 25-year-old, who has a 6.62 home ERA this year in seven starts, lost at Cincinnati on June 28 after yielding six runs -- five earned -- over 6 1/3 innings for his first career loss to the Reds, who he is now 3-1 against with a 6.75 ERA in four starts.

Johnny Cueto faced Kendrick that day and got the win with eight innings of one-run ball. He improved to 1-2 with an 8.04 ERA in three starts versus the Phillies.

That victory came in the opener of a three-game home set versus Philadelphia. Cincinnati took two of three but has still lost 10 of 15 and 15 of its last 23 in the series.

Cueto is 8-2 on the season with a 3.56 ERA and has allowed just two runs over his last four starts, a span of 25 2/3 innings that has featured a 2-1 mark. However, the 24-year-old righty struggled with his control on Saturday in a no-decision versus the Cubs, allowing seven hits and five walks over five shutout innings and 101 pitches.

"[Cueto] was struggling, big time," manager Dusty Baker told the Reds' website. "He had trouble getting strike one. That was the problem. He threw a lot of near-strikes."

Cueto is 4-1 on the road this year with a 3.42 ERA in nine starts.