PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Pirates are well aware of what’s coming when Johnny Cueto is standing on the mound.
Not that it makes figuring out the Cincinnati Reds ace any easier. Cueto continued his mastery of the Pirates in a 6-0 romp on Friday night.
“We saw it all tonight,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. “He was very stingy tonight.”
He almost always is against the Pirates. Cueto (3-0) bumped his lifetime record versus Pittsburgh to 13-4 to send the Pirates to just their fifth loss in their past 21 games.
Pittsburgh has put together its best month in 21 years (19-9) behind
a lights out bullpen that helped them secure four 1-0 victories in a span of 11 days, the first team to pull off that feat since the 1918 Washington Senators.
Cueto made sure it didn’t get that far, striking out six and walking one while surrendering only a single to left by Brandon Inge with one out in the fifth. Inge was a late substitution when regular third baseman Pedro Alvarez was scratched after having his wisdom teeth removed. If he doesn’t find open grass the Pirates could have been no-hit at home by the Reds for the second time in eight months.
Homer Bailey no-hit Pittsburgh last September and Cueto was probably sharper in his third start since returning from the disabled list.
“Luckily Brandon saved us all with a half-swing base hit,” Pittsburgh second baseman Neil Walker said. “Maybe we should all have half-swinged tonight. Nothing else really worked for us.”
Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips hit solo home runs off for the Reds, who piled on in the late going against Pittsburgh reliever Mike Zagurski, a rare hiccup by baseball’s best bullpen through the first third of the season as the two rivals moved into a second-place tie behind St. Louis in the NL Central at 34-21.
Wandy Rodriguez (6-3) kept the Pirates in it even though he struggled with his command. The left-hander surrendered five hits and walked three with five strikeouts in seven innings.
“You see Cueto pitching a pretty good game and you’re trying to keep the game in line, especially after the first home run,” Rodriguez said. “I tried to do my best but it happens.”
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 sent him to the disabled list for a month.
Cueto hardly needed the bullpen at all Friday. Keeping the Pirates off-balance with a steady mix of fastballs and sliders, Cueto kept one of baseball’s hottest teams in check.
The Pirates managed to get just three balls out of the infield all night and he momentum after Inge’s lone hit lasted for only a moment. Clint Barmes hit into an inning-ending double play and Pittsburgh never threatened.
Rodriguez wasn’t quite as sharp as Cueto but was helped early on by a series of long fly balls hit to the deepest parts of PNC Park. The Reds hit four balls to the warning track before Bruce stepped in with one out in the fourth.
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 (a homer) 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.
That would be more than enough for Cueto, who shaved his career ERA against the Pirates to 2.33.
NOTES: Votto walked twice to push his season total to a National League-leading 46 ... The game was the 1,000th 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 .