CINCINNATI -- Jason LaRue's meaningful moments have been few and far between this season. The timing on his latest was perfect.
When it looked like Cincinnati was about to fade away, LaRue provided a win that kept the Reds thinking there's still enough time to elbow their way back to the front of the pack of contenders.
"It's been that way all year," manager Jerry Narron said. "Every time the wheels start to fall off, we come back and win a couple. This is a league of runs, and we're capable of putting together a solid run."
Cincinnati won for only the fifth time in its last 16 games, moving 2½ games behind San Diego for the NL wild card. Four teams are now bunched within 2½ games of the Padres.
"You'd figure at this point you'd be getting some clear scenarios for some teams, but that's just not the case," said San Diego's Mike Piazza, who hit a solo homer. "We just have to hang in there. Teams can pick up ground or lose ground quickly."
LaRue had an awkward swing-and-miss on the first pitch from Doug Brocail (2-2), then connected on the next pitch for his eighth homer. LaRue, batting only .180, got into the three-hour, 34-minute game in the late innings.
Scott Schoeneweis (1-0) escaped a threat in the 10th to get the win.
Sensing the importance of the series, the Reds offered half-price tickets and $1 hot dogs, hoping to draw big crowds. They sold only 15,820 tickets for the opener, which started on time after a daylong rain.
"People talk about how this is the biggest series of the year, but it's not going to mean anything if we win the series and then (self-destruct) the rest of the way," LaRue said.
Both starters were out of the game after five innings, leaving it up to the bullpens.
Padres right-hander Chris Young got a no-decision that preserved his unbeaten streak on the road. Young left for a pinch-hitter during a three-run rally that put San Diego up 4-3 in the sixth inning.
Rich Aurilia hit a three-run homer off Young, who is 6-0 with a 2.69 ERA in 13 road starts this season. Young, obtained in an offseason trade with Texas, hasn't lost in his last 22 road starts, the longest such streak in the majors since Greg Maddux went 22 without a loss in 1997-98.
Reds starter Eric Milton left the game after five innings because of a stiff left elbow. For the third time in his last five starts, the bullpen cost him a victory. Terrmel Sledge's pinch-hit single off Rheal Cormier completed the three-run rally that put the Padres up 4-3 in the sixth.
Scott Linebrink gave up a tying run in the eighth, when Edwin Encarnacion scored from third while the Padres futilely tried to turn a double play on Brandon Phillips' grounder. Encarnacion stole third base to set up the run, barely beating the throw.
"That was a bold move, and it was a turning point in the game," manager Bruce Bochy said. "I thought we had him. Obviously, we didn't. It was a real close play and he just got in there."
Padres reliever Cal Meredith escaped a bases-loaded threat in the sixth and extended an impressive streak of his own. The right-hander hasn't been scored upon in his last 28 appearances spanning 33 2/3 innings, a club record.
- Piazza's homer was the 418th of his career. Next on the list is Billy Williams in 38th place with 426.
- Piazza leads major league catchers with 21 homers.
- The top three batters in San Diego's order went 0-for-14.
- Adrian Gonzalez tied his career high with four hits.
- CF Ken Griffey Jr. was out of the Reds lineup for the sixth straight game because of a dislocated toe.
- Adam Dunn struck out twice, raising his NL-leading total to 171 -- the second-highest of his career. Dunn fanned a major league-record 195 times in 2004.
- The Reds topped 2 million in attendance for the third time in their four seasons at Great American Ball Park.