The defending NL Central champions are having big problems with a team they handled last season. Pittsburgh's starting pitching has a lot to do with that.
James McDonald pitched into the seventh inning Thursday and Neil Walker doubled home a pair of runs, leading the Pirates to a 5-3 victory and a two-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds.
The Pirates arrived in town with a six-game losing streak and came away with their first series sweep in Cincinnati since 2003. They did it with pitching — Charlie Morton threw a five-hitter for a 5-0 win in the opener. McDonald (3-3) allowed one run and seven hits in 6 2-3 innings, quieting one of the NL's most prolific lineups in one of its most hitter-friendly ballparks.
"The Pirates have given us a tough time this year," said outfielder Jay Bruce, who hit a pair of solo homers.
The Pirates finally broke through against Johnny Cueto (2-1), who had won his last seven decisions against them. Ryan Doumit added a solo homer.
The sweep left Pittsburgh 13-12 on the road, a vast improvement over last year's 17-64 mark away from home. The Pirates didn't get their 13th road win last season until July 28.
Pittsburgh has turned the tables on Cincinnati so far this season, winning five of their six games. Last year, the Reds took the season series 10-6.
"They've been playing us tough all year," manager Dusty Baker said. "It just goes to show you, anyone can beat you no matter where they are in the standings. We made a few mistakes, which didn't help, but it was mostly McDonald's pitching."
The Pirates' starters gave up one run and 12 hits in 15 2-3 innings during the series. Bruce led off the second with a homer off McDonald, a drive to center that made an impact.
"The first inning was kind of slow," McDonald said. "I think that Bruce homer kind of woke me up a little bit, got a little fight in me. That's when I turned it on. I need to work on having that from the first inning on."
Joey Votto singled home a run in the eighth off Joe Beimel. Bruce hit another solo homer in the ninth off Joel Hanrahan, who got his 12th save in as many chances.
Cueto has done some of his best pitching against the Pirates, going 7-0 in his previous nine starts against them with a 1.74 ERA. But the right-hander had a rough time from the start of this one.
He walked two in the second inning, when the Pirates loaded the bases with one out. Ronny Cedeno took a called third strike on a full-count breaking ball that was right down the middle, and McDonald flied out to end the threat. Through two innings, Cueto threw 44 pitches — 20 of them out of the strike zone.
"He threw a lot of pitches in that second inning, and that did him in," Baker said.
Cueto got into trouble again after retiring the first two batters to open the fifth. Andrew McCutchen doubled and came around on Xavier Paul's single. After a walk to Garrett Jones, Walker doubled off the wall in center for a 3-1 lead.
Doumit led off the sixth with his fourth homer off reliever Jordan Smith. McCutchen doubled home a run in the eighth against Nick Masset.
NOTES: The Pirates return home and start interleague play against Detroit. They're 10-14 against the Tigers in interleague play. ... The Reds visit Cleveland for the first of their two interleague series. The Reds are 13-5 against the Indians in the last three seasons. ... It was Bruce's 11th career multihomer game. ... Reds 2B Brandon Phillips extended his hitting streak to 10 games. He was thrown out at second base while trying to stretch a single in the seventh. ... C Ramon Hernandez had his hitting streak snapped at 11 games, longest by a Reds player this season.