By MATT BROWN
(AP) -- Johnny Cueto failed in his first attempt to reach 18 wins.
Facing the worst team in the majors and taking the mound in the daytime, he seems unlikely to come up short again.
Cueto will get the ball Sunday as the Cincinnati Reds aim to take two of three from the Houston Astros.
Tops in the NL in ERA and one victory behind Washington's Gio Gonzalez and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets for the major league lead, Cueto (17-7, 2.58 ERA) is the front-runner for the Cy Young Award and a big reason the Reds (84-56) own the largest division lead in baseball - 9 1/2 games over St. Louis in the Central.
Cueto carried a seven-game home winning streak and an 11-0 record in day games into his last start, but saw both runs come to an end Monday in a 4-2 loss to Philadelphia. The right-hander allowed four runs and eight hits over seven innings, surrendering a pair of homers - including a decisive three-run shot to Jimmy Rollins in the rain.
"The mound was getting slippery," Cueto said through a translator. "It was slippery the pitch before (Rollins' homer). When it rains you expect that. It's not an excuse."
Cueto still has a chance to become Cincinnati's first 20-game winner since Danny Jackson in 1988. It would stand to reason that he's taken advantage of plenty of starts against the division rival Astros (43-96), but he's only faced the club with the worst record in the majors once.
It was a dominant outing. Cueto limited Houston to five hits, one walk and one hit batsman in seven innings of a 6-0 home win April 28.
After dropping two of three to the Phillies and losing Friday's opener of this series 5-3, the Reds recovered to post a 5-1 win Saturday as Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce homered. Bruce has gone deep in six of his last eight games, increasing his season total to a career-high 33.
Fernando Martinez, J.D. Martinez and Matt Dominguez had two hits apiece for Houston, which failed in its bid to win back-to-back games for just the second time since June. The Astros have dropped three of four and 53 of 64 as they close in on their second consecutive 100-loss season.
"Everybody is going to get a chance down the stretch," interim manager Tony DeFrancesco said. "We had the right guys up. A big hit here and there and we would have a chance. Two hits for J.D was nice to see after the struggles you've seen all summer."
Houston will give the ball Sunday to Edgar Gonzalez (1-0, 1.69), who seeks his second win in as many appearances with the team. Signed to a minor league contract last month and promoted Monday, the former Colorado, Oakland and Arizona pitcher yielded one run in 5 1-3 innings of a 5-1 victory at Pittsburgh.
Only three current Reds have faced Gonzalez, but Phillips is 3 for 6 with a homer and a walk off the right-hander.
Houston All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve missed Saturday's game with a lower abdominal strain. He is day-to-day.
Updated September 9, 2012