CINCINNATI – With the bases loaded, two outs and the Reds down a run, manager Bryan Price decided to let his rookie pitcher take some swings.
Jackson Stephens delivered on the first one.
The right-hander lasted five innings in his major league debut and drove in the go-ahead runs with a bases-loaded single on Saturday, leading Cincinnati to a 5-3 victory over the struggling Cubs.
"It was unbelievable, a childhood dream," said Stephens (1-0), who smacked his hands together after reaching first base on his first major league hit.
The Cubs' fourth loss in five games dropped them to 40-41, well off their pace from a year ago (51-30) when they were on their way to an NL Central title and a World Series championship.
"We look forward to turning that thing around completely and heading in the other direction – .500 is not good enough for us, and we know that," infielder Ben Zobrist said.
The Cubs' roster has been depleted by injuries, contributing to their season-long inconsistency. Zobrist returned from the disabled list on Saturday, and Kris Bryant was back after missing two games with a sprained ankle.
Manager Joe Maddon thought his team would have a better record at this point, even with the injuries.
"But it's OK," Maddon said. "We get everybody healthy right now, get everybody back out there, and I'm very confident that we'll start looking like we're supposed to look."
Stephens gave up a solo homer by Jon Jay and a two-run shot by Willson Contreras in five innings. He was called up to help the Reds fill an opening in the rotation created by Brandon Finnegan's arm injury.
With two outs and the bases loaded in the fourth, Stephens singled up the middle off Eddie Butler (4-3) for two runs and a 4-3 lead.
"I located probably my best fastball of the day to the pitcher and he hits a six-hopper up the middle," Butler said. "That's frustrating."
Raisel Iglesias escaped a two-on threat in the eighth and got the last four outs for his 15th save in 16 chances.
The Cubsmanaged only three singles while losing the series opener, 5-0, Friday night. They got to Stephens the second time through the order for a 3-0 lead. Jay led off the third inning with his first homer since May 24 of last season, and Contreras added a two-run shot.
Cincinnati sent nine batters to the plate in the fourth. Adam Duvall doubled home a run, and Butler walked Tucker Barnhart to force in a run with two outs and bring up Stephens, who singled on the first pitch.
Billy Hamilton singled to open the Reds' first inning and was picked off by Butler, the first time he's been picked off this season.
Maddon tweeted two photos of a large group of Cubs fans cheering the team as it left the hotel for the ballpark on Saturday morning. "Pretty spectacular," Maddon said. "And it's humbling, it really is."
Jay's homer ended a streak of 328 at-bats without one. ... The Cubs have homered in 16 of their last 17 games at Great American Ball Park. ... The Reds will try to sweep the Cubs for the first time at Great American. Their last three-game sweep in Cincinnati came in 1996 at Cinergy Field. ... Stephens is the first Reds pitcher with two RBIs in his major league debut since Paul Moskau drove in two runs on June 21, 1977, according to information from the Elias Sports Bureau provided by the Reds.
Cubs: Zobrist was activated off the DL and grounded out as a pinch hitter. He missed 17 games with an injured left wrist. ... OF Jason Heyward starts a rehab assignment on Sunday. He's been sidelined since June 19 by a hand injury.
Reds: SS Zack Cozart got a day off. He returned from a thigh injury and singled twice on Friday night. He'll get days off regularly as he's eased back into a starting role.
Cubs: Jake Arrieta (7-6) makes his first start since the Washington Nationals stole seven bases against him during the Cubs' 6-1 loss on Tuesday. Afterward, Miguel Montero blamed the pitcher's move to the plate, prompting the Cubs to let go of the catcher a day later.
Reds: Tim Adleman (5-4) is 3-2 with a 3.43 ERA in his last seven starts. He didn't get a decision in the Cubs' 6-5 win at Wrigley Field on April 21 after he allowed two runs in six innings.