CINCINNATI (AP) _ Without Jason Simontacchi, the St. Louis Cardinals probably wouldn't be where they are now: one win shy of first place.
Somehow, the unheralded pitcher who spanned the globe to get to the big leagues keeps coming up with wins when they're needed most.
Simontacchi took a shutout into the seventh inning before tiring on a muggy Tuesday night, leading the Cardinals to an 8-5 victory that extended their dominance over the Cincinnati Reds.
When the Cardinals' pitching staff was depleted by injuries, they gave Simontacchi (4-0) a chance. In return, he's given them a chance to catch the first-place Reds, who lead the NL Central by only one game.
``It's hard to describe the lift he's given us,'' manager Tony La Russa said. ``He's been really special and really needed.''
The Reds have been alone in first since April 26, taking great pride in their vantage point. They led the Cardinals by as many as five games, a cushion that's all but vanished along with some of their confidence.
St. Louis has won six of its eight games against Cincinnati, including a 10-8 victory at Cinergy Field on May 12 that included the Cardinals' biggest comeback in a decade.
``You'd like to start mixing in some wins,'' said Aaron Boone, who hit a three-run homer in the Reds' eighth inning. ``You feel like a lot of people are saying, 'Well, you can't beat them, and it's a must win and this is a huge series.' I do feel like tomorrow's game is important. This is a team we've got to beat.''
With Simontacchi on the mound, that's tough to do.
He has played in four farm systems, an independent league, the Italian professional league, the Venezuelan winter league and the 2000 Olympics for Italy before finally making it to the majors. One of his highlights was pitching in relief against the United States on manager Tom Lasorda's birthday.
It seems that every time he pitches nowadays, there's some new memory.
On Tuesday, he faced Ken Griffey Jr. for the first time, got him out three times and relished the moments.
``I just think about my dad watching at home, seeing what Griffey does,'' Simontacchi said. ``I'm still enjoying this.''
The right-hander gave up one run and six hits in 6 1-3 innings before tiring on a humid, 82-degree night, lowering his ERA to 2.48.
``I'm impressed with him,'' said Boone, who homered off Mike Matthews. ``He's got a real easy motion, but he's quicker than you think and his ball's got some finish. He's a little like (Greg) Maddux in that regard. He's a guy you haven't seen _ a little guy who's come out of nowhere.''
The Reds have seen plenty of the Cardinals' offense, which scored 10 consecutive runs while pulling off that comeback the last time they were at Cinergy.
This time, the Cardinals pulled ahead 7-0 and were never in serious trouble. Fernando Vina had three hits, including a pair of run-scoring singles, J.D. Drew drove in two runs and Albert Pujols hit a two-run homer off Joey Hamilton (3-3).