CINCINNATI — Nine days between starts was too much for Francisco Liriano.
The left-hander lacked his usual control, resulting in his shortest outing of the season. Brandon Phillips drove in three runs with a bases-loaded double, and the Cincinnati Reds tightened the NL Central race by beating the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-3 on Friday night.
The third-place Reds moved to within three games of second-place Pittsburgh. The Pirates lead the season series 6-5.
The Reds sent nine batters to the plate for four runs in the fifth off Liriano (9-4), who had his shortest outing of the season. Chris Heisey’s infield single drove in the first run, and Phillips’ double off Justin Wilson made it 5-0.
“One of those days I didn’t get any rhythm,” Liriano said. “I tried to make good pitches and it didn’t work out. Everything was up. I was rushing a little bit. I didn’t get anything going. Just one of those days.”
Heisey also had a solo homer off Liriano, who is 0-3 in three starts against Mike Leake and the Reds this season. In the last two games, he got little support from his offense. This time, his control deserted him. Liriano needed 98 pitches to go 4 1-3 innings.
“Nine days off the mound,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He was trying to get back into a rhythm. He threw more pitches than he wanted to.
“We were a pitch or two away from getting out of situations. We’ve gotten out of those situations before. We couldn’t tonight.”
Leake (9-4) gave up solo homers to Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Russell Martin in the sixth inning. Manny Parra fanned Pedro Alvarez with runners on second and third to end the seventh.
Aroldis Chapman struck out two in the ninth while getting his 22nd save in 25 chances.
Leake has won his last three decisions against Pittsburgh. The three homers represented a breakthrough for the Pirates.
“Too bad we weren’t able to jump on him earlier than we did,” McCutchen said.
The Ohio River rivals have produced the majors’ most painful pairings this season. Nineteen batters have been hit by pitches — the Reds 10 times, the Pirates nine times — in their 11 games. Nobody was hit Friday, a rare game that didn’t leave a mark.
The Pirates emerged from the All-Star break with their best record in 37 years. Their 56 wins were their most at the break since the World Series champion Pirates of 1971 had 57 wins.
Pittsburgh’s overriding question: Can it avoid another second-half meltdown and break a two-decade streak of losing?
The Reds are trying to duplicate what they did last season, when they went on a surge after the break and ran away to the NL Central title. First, they need to get healthy. Top starter Johnny Cueto, set-up men Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton, and cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick are still on the disabled list.
Heisey took over in left field when Ludwick got hurt, then pulled his right hamstring and missed nearly two months. His solo shot on Friday gave him three homers since his return.
Shin-Soo Choo singled during Cincinnati’s four-run fifth, extending his hitting streak to 13 games, matching his career high.
Phillips’ decisive double came a few hours after a magazine released an interview with the All-Star second baseman in which he said he’s still “scarred” by the Reds’ decision to give Joey Votto a 10-year, $225 million extension in 2012 while he was in tough negotiations for an extension of his own. Votto said he understood Phillips’ opinion and appreciated his honesty.
NOTES: Pirates second baseman Neil Walker started a rehab assignment with Triple-A Indianapolis on Friday. He’ll play three games and get evaluated. He’s been on the 15-day DL since June 7 with soreness in his right side. ... First baseman Garrett Jones’ error ended Pittsburgh streak of 41 innings without one, matching their season high. ... The Reds called up infielder Neftali Soto from Triple-A Louisville, filling the spot opened when left-handed pitcher Tony Cingrani was sent down Wednesday. ... Manager Dusty Baker said left-handed reliever Sean Marshall suffered a “minor setback” in his throwing program. Marshall has been on the DL since April 10 with a sore pitching shoulder.