Outstanding pitching has spurred the Pittsburgh Pirates to one of the best records in the NL.
Despite some recent struggles, the Cincinnati Reds aren't far behind.
Wandy Rodriguez is slated to get the ball in an attempt to help the Pirates conclude May with their longest home winning streak in over five years Friday night against the Reds.
Pittsburgh (34-20) has won 16 of its last 20 thanks in large part to a 2.21 ERA from the staff - 1.96 while going 10-2 at home. That success has put the Pirates in second place in the NL Central, one game ahead of Cincinnati as both teams chase first-place St. Louis.
Pittsburgh is on a six-game home winning streak, during which its pitchers have compiled a 1.45 ERA. The Pirates haven't put together a longer run at home since winning seven straight from April 27-May 12, 2008.
Matching that feat would mean beating Cincinnati (33-21) at PNC Park again after sweeping a three-game set from April 12-14.
Pittsburgh got another dazzling effort Thursday, when six pitchers combined to scatter nine hits in a 1-0, 11-inning victory over Detroit - its second such win over the Tigers in three games.
"It goes back to the staples of pitching we've been talking about since the start of spring training," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Have intent with every pitch and have conviction with every pitch and execution will follow."
That seems to be the case for Rodriguez (6-2, 3.58 ERA), who is looking to win a career-high five straight starts in the opener of this three-game series.
The left-hander has won four games in a row with a 3.00 ERA, but his latest outing was his shortest of that stretch.
Rodriguez allowed three runs and seven hits in five innings of a 5-4 win at Milwaukee on Sunday.
A return home could be just what Rodriguez needs to keep his winning streak going since he's compiled a 1.93 ERA while winning four of five home starts. However, he's 0-2 with a 5.28 ERA over his last five outings versus Cincinnati.
Rodriguez has also struggled versus Joey Votto , who is hitting .373 against him after going 6 for 11 with two doubles and a homer last year.
The Reds' slugging first baseman is a career .357 hitter at Pittsburgh, and he's batting .414 with six homers, 25 runs and 14 RBIs on the road this season. However, he went 1 for 8 while Cincinnati dropped back-to-back games to Cleveland, including 7-1 on Thursday.
The Reds are expected to turn to Johnny Cueto (2-0, 2.76), who returns to Pittsburgh for the first time since getting hurt in a 3-1 loss April 13.
The right-hander allowed one run and two hits before exiting in the fifth inning due to a strained right triceps, which sidelined him for five weeks.
Cueto earned a 4-3 win over the New York Mets in his return to the mound May 20, yielding three runs and three hits with eight strikeouts and four walks in five innings. He was even better six days later, allowing one run in seven innings while not getting a decision in a 5-4 loss to the Chicago Cubs .
"Outstanding stuff," manager Dusty Baker told the team's official website. "That's Johnny. He was throwing like he wasn't afraid of hurting anything. He was a little tentative his last time out, but he was a lot sharper and more aggressive than he was in New York."
Cueto is 12-4 with a 2.52 ERA in 20 career starts against the Pirates, going 7-2 with a 2.09 ERA in 12 games at Pittsburgh.
|May 21, 2013||Sean Marshall||15-Day DL||Sprained left shoulder|
|April 27, 2013||Chris Heisey||15-Day DL||Strained right hamstring|
|April 27, 2013||Chris Heisey||Day-to-Day||Left game - strained hamstring|
|April 24, 2013||Manny Parra||15-Day DL||Strained left pectoral muscle|
|April 24, 2013||Manny Parra||15-Day DL||Strained left pectoral muscle|
|April 22, 2013||Jonathan Broxton||Day-to-Day||Bruised right hand|
|May 28, 2013||Jose Contreras||15-Day DL||Lower back inflammation|
|May 25, 2013||Jose Tabata||15-Day DL||Strained left oblique - out 3-4 weeks|
|May 19, 2013||Andrew McCutchen||Day-to-Day||Sore right knee|
|May 15, 2013||John McDonald||15-Day DL||Lower back discomfort|
|May 01, 2013||James McDonald||15-Day DL||Right shoulder discomfort|
|April 27, 2013||Travis Snider||Day-to-Day||Left side discomfort|
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Neil Walker eyed Johnny Cueto 's fastball and turned on it. Before the Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman could get the bat out of his hands, the ball was nestled into the glove of Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto .
In one motion Walker flipped his bat in faux disgust then turned back toward the dugout.
"You hit a ball hard and sometimes you see that it's the guy's night and it seemed like it was one of those," Walker said.
It always seems that way when Cueto faces the Pirates.
The Cincinnati ace allowed one hit over eight dominant innings as the Reds pounded Pittsburgh in a 6-0 win on Friday night. Cueto (3-0) struck out six, walked one and allowed just three balls out of the infield.
Pittsburgh's Brandon Inge provided the lone Pirates' hit with a single to left with one out in the fifth.
"He looked really good tonight, though, like the Johnny Cueto of old," Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker said. "He had great stuff, great stamina and he really pitched a heck of a ballgame."
Cueto improved to 13-4 all-time against the Pirates while shaving his career ERA against Pittsburgh to 2.33. Not bad for a player who missed more than a month with a back injury.
There appeared to be no such issues in his third start since being taking off the disabled list on May 19. Mixing an effective changeup with a fastball that still topped out at 94 mph in the eighth, Cueto kept Pittsburgh off balance all night.
"I feel good," Cueto said. "I make the adjustment that I had to make and I feel good so far. It feels good to come back here and pitch well."
Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips hit solo home runs off Pittsburgh's Wandy Rodriguez (6-3) before piling on late against reliever Mike Zagurski in a rare hiccup by baseball's best bullpen through the first third of the season.
Bruce has struggled against Rodriguez throughout his career entering the night just 2 for 32 (.063) against the veteran lefthander. Those numbers inched up when he took a 2-0 fastball and sent it into the first row of seats in right center for his eighth homer of the year.
"You know it's there but I'm a better hitter than I have shown against him in the past," Bruce said. "It's nice to get one off him and now I have to keep on going when I face him."
Phillips followed suit in the sixth, lining a shot that scraped the top of the leftfield wall just over the glove of Pittsburgh's Starling Marte .
Wandy Rodriguez (6-3) kept Cincinnati in check otherwise on a night he struggled with his command at times. The left-hander surrendered five hits and walked three with five strikeouts in seven innings.
While Cueto's had his way with Pittsburgh in his 20 career starts, the Pirates have made inroads recently. They spoiled his chance at winning his 20th game in his final start last season and he left a 3-1 loss to the Pirates on April 13 with a strained back that sidelined him for five weeks.
He returned with five effective innings in a 4-3 victory over the New York Mets on May 20 then backed it up an even stronger performance six days later against the Chicago Cubs . He exited with a three-run lead the bullpen ultimately gave away in a 5-4 10-inning loss.
This time, Cueto hardly needed the bullpen at all.
Inge's single in the fifth was a harmless one-hopper in front of leftfielder Derrick Robinson . If Inge doesn't get the ball down, there's a chance the Reds no-hit the Pirates for the second time in eight months. Homer Bailey threw a no-no in Pittsburgh last September.
"Luckily Brandon saved us all with a half-swing base hit," Walker said. "Maybe we should all have half-swinged tonight. Nothing else really worked for us."
The momentum Inge provided lasted all of one pitch. Clint Barmes ended the inning by hitting into a double play and Pittsburgh didn't manage another baserunner the rest of the way.
"Johnny was Johnny," Bruce said. "He was brilliant. Obviously, his numbers in the game spoke for themselves. He's a huge piece of the puzzle to have back."
NOTES: Votto went 0 for 3 but walked twice to push his season total to a National League-leading 46 ... The game was the 1000th played at PNC Park, which opened in 2001. The Pirates are 488-512 all-time at PNC, including 49-52 against the Reds ... Pittsburgh finished May 19-9, the franchise's best record in a calendar month since September, 1992, the last time the Pirates made the playoffs ... The series continues on Saturday when Pittsburgh's Francisco Liriano (3-1, 2.35 ERA) faces Cincinnati's Mike Leake (4-2, 3.02). As part of Heritage Weekend the Pirates will wear replica uniforms of the Homestead Grays while the Reds will wear Cincinnati Tigers jerseys.