CINCINNATI -- With another pursuer bumped to the roadside, the San Diego Padres packed up their wild-card lead and headed for a first-place showdown on the West Coast.
This is going to be some weekend in Los Angeles.
"It's a great way to get on an airplane," manager Bruce Bochy said Thursday, after a 4-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds turned the Padres' next series into exactly what they wanted.
With the NL West-leading Dodgers losing to the Cubs 6-5, the Padres left town only a half-game out -- their smallest deficit since Aug. 10.
Up next: Four games with first place up for grabs.
"Oh man, it's about as big as it can get around here," said Mike Cameron, whose bases-loaded single broke open a scoreless game in the seventh inning. "We've got a little bit of energy and momentum going into L.A. I'm sure they're going to be ready to go and everything. And it's going to be a big Friday night matinee in L.A."
Before they could think about moving up, the Padres had to take care of a team that's all but out of it. Cameron's two-run single off Aaron Harang (13-11) could go down as the hit that finally toppled the Reds, who lost two of three in a pivotal series.
Since they moved within a percentage point of first place in the NL Central on Aug. 24, the Reds have lost 13 of 18. Cincinnati stands fifth in the wild-card race, trailing the Padres by 4½ with 16 games left.
"We've battled all year and showed a lot of heart and character, but we're not in a good spot," manager Jerry Narron said.
San Diego is 2½ games up in the wild-card race over Philadelphia and San Francisco.
The Reds have no games left with the Padres or the Central-leading St. Louis Cardinals, making it difficult to make up ground. The three games against San Diego amounted to a last chance.
And they blew it.
"Before, it was in our hands," first baseman Scott Hatteberg said. "It would have been nice to take two out of three or sweep these guys. That's what we wanted to do, and we didn't do it. It makes it hard to play in October."
The pitching staff, among the NL's best, had a lot to do with it.
Clay Hensley (9-11) struck out a career-high seven batters and retired 14 in a row over one stretch. The right-hander gave up a pair of runs in 6 2/3 innings, then let one of the league's deepest bullpens take it from there.
Trevor Hoffman struck out two in a perfect ninth for his 474th career save, leaving him four shy of Lee Smith's record. Hoffman has converted 38 of his 42 chances this season, a big reason why the Padres are still in playoff contention.
"Fortunately I was here last year when we made it," said Hensley, who pitched in three playoff games. "That's the best thing that could have happened to me. Anything less than that is a failure in my mind. So we're making a good push at a good time."
The Padres sent nine batters to the plate in the seventh and scored four times on only two hits. San Diego loaded the bases on a single, a walk and catcher Jason LaRue's poor decision -- he threw to third base too late to get a forceout on Geoff Blum's sacrifice bunt.
Cameron, only 3-for-12 against Harang, then worked the count full before lining a single to left to score two runs. As he rounded first base, Cameron slapped his gloved hands together so hard that the smack was heard throughout the ballpark.
Cameron played despite a painful bruise on his left knee, hit when he fouled off a pitch the previous night.
"When you're part of something like this, you've just got to be in there," Cameron said. "It turned out to be a good day for me to be in there."
Harang, who had never lost to his hometown team, later walked Hensley to force in another run and end his outing. Dave Roberts' run-scoring groundout completed the rally.
- LH David Wells will make his third start for the Padres in the series opener against the Dodgers. Wells is 1-1 in three career starts against L.A. with a 7.04 ERA.
- Hensley has given up only one home run in his last 10 starts.
- Hensley's previous career high was six strikeouts, accomplished twice.
- San Diego 1B Adrian Gonzalez went 7-for-12 in the series with a pair of doubles.
- CF Ken Griffey Jr. was out of the Reds' lineup for the eighth straight game after dislocating a toe.
- Harang is a San Diego native and resident. He was 3-0 with a 2.60 ERA in four previous starts against the Padres.
- The Reds tried to entice big crowds with offers of half-price tickets and $1 hot dogs for the series. They sold only 54,379 tickets for the three games.