If the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to further their surge into the thick of the NL Central and wild-card races, they're going to have to beat the pitcher who has had their number this year - and seemingly every year.
The Pirates go for a sweep of Johnny Cueto and the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday when the division rivals conclude their three-game series at PNC Park.
Pittsburgh (71-64) has moved within two games of Milwaukee in the Central and is part of a four-team logjam vying for the two NL wild-card spots after beating Cincinnati 3-2 on Saturday. It was a season high-tying fourth straight win for the Pirates, who watched Vance Worley and three relievers make Neil Walker's first-inning three-run homer stand.
'It's a testament to our pitching,' Walker said. 'We only scored three runs today and Vance and the bullpen made it stand up. That's what won it for us.'
Finishing off the Reds, though, likely will prove a handful against Cueto (15-8, 2.26 ERA), who has been Pittsburgh's nemesis this season and throughout his career. The right-hander is 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA in four starts versus the Pirates this year - beating scheduled counterpart Francisco Liriano twice - and limiting them to six runs and 18 hits in 30 innings while striking out 25.
Cueto's 16 wins are easily the most in his career against any one team, and highlighting his success against Pittsburgh this year has been run support - he's gotten 19 in the four starts. The Reds gave him six in a 6-3 win over Liriano on July 13 when he yielded three runs and five hits in six innings.
Getting six on Sunday would be a welcome change for Cueto, who hasn't received any in his last two as he tries to avoid his first three-start losing streak since Sept. 3-15, 2012. The right-hander allowed three runs - all coming on two homers - and seven hits while striking out eight in 6 1-3 innings of a 3-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday.
Cueto, though, was more aggravated at the 50-minute rain delay in the top of the first, believing it should have taken place before his first pitch to not disrupt his rhythm.
'I was upset,' he said with catcher Brayan Pena serving as his interpreter. 'They knew it was going to rain. They should've called timeout and not started the game. I was afraid I was going to hit him with a pitch. I couldn't grip the ball.'
Walker is 7 for 38 with a homer versus Cueto, but reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen is 14 for 52 with four homers among his nine extra-base hits.
Like Cueto, Liriano (3-10, 3.98) has been bereft of run support as he tries to avoid a sixth straight winless start. The left-hander was effective Monday versus St. Louis, scattering four hits and three walks over six shutout innings before Pittsburgh eventually lost 3-2.
The Pirates have given Liriano four runs during his winless stretch, and he has a 2.81 ERA while holding opponents to two or fewer runs in seven of his last eight outings. In the July 13 loss to Cueto, he walked six in four innings and couldn't recover from Kristopher Negron's three-run homer in the second.
The Reds have gone 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position while totaling three runs in the two defeats.
Jay Bruce, who is 1 for 7 in the series, may get the day off since he is 0 for 16 with six strikeouts lifetime versus Liriano.
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