Reds, Pirates open big series in Cincinnati

The race in the National League Central could get sorted out after this weekend's three-game series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds at PNC Park.

The two wild card leaders will kick off the important series Friday night and trail the St. Louis Cardinals in the division. Pittsburgh, the leaders of the first NL wild card spot, is one game behind the Cardinals, while Cincinnati sits two games off the pace. The Reds, though, are five games ahead of Washington for the final postseason berth.

Pittsburgh is 4-4 on an 11-game homestand and salvaged the finale of a four- game series versus the San Diego Padres with Thursday's 10-1 demolition. Pirates young starting pitcher Gerrit Cole struck out 12 batters and held the Friars to a run and four hits in six innings for the win.

"More often than not, the game starts on the mound and it did today," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "It was a feel good for everybody today."

Cole was backed by a potent offense, which was highlighted by Neil Walker, who finished 4-for-5 with a home run and three RBI. Jose Tabata ended with two hits, a pair of runs scored and drove in three runs, while Tony Sanchez and Jordy Mercer each posted two hits and two runs scored. Pedro Alvarez homered for the Pirates, who had lost four of their previous six games.

Francisco Liriano gets the start for the Buccos Friday and he is 16-7 with a 2.92 ERA in 24 starts. He is 11-4 in his last 15 decisions with a 3.15 ERA and the Pirates have a 12-4 mark in that span. Liriano held the Chicago Cubs to two runs in six innings of a 3-2 win on Sunday and did not figure into the decision.

Liriano has an 8-1 mark in 10 home starts, but is winless in three starts against Cincinnati in 2013. He never faced the Reds before this season.

The Reds are coming off a three-game sweep against the Houston Astros and have a 4-2 record on the final road trip of the season. In a 6-5 win in 13 innings on Wednesday from Houston's Minute Maid Park, Jay Bruce's two-run double was enough to lift Cincinnati to its ninth win in 13 tries.

Jonathan Villar scored for the Astros in the bottom of the 13th before Reds All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman settled down to post his 37th save. Alfredo Simon tossed three scoreless innings of relief to pick up the win and starter Greg Reynolds was reached for a pair of runs in 3 2/3 innings.

Bruce, meanwhile, had three doubles and Billy Hamilton ended 3-for-4 with an RBI and two runs scored in his first start for the Reds. Bruce is batting .529 with nine hits and 10 RBI in his last four games.

"He's a really good hitter," Astros manager Bo Porter said of Bruce. "We walked him (intentionally in the ninth) with runners at first and third. That should tell you how much we think about him. He hurt us all three games."

Taking the mound for the Reds Friday will be Mat Latos. Latos is 2-3 in his past five decisions and lost at Milwaukee in last Friday's 5-1 setback, as he surrendered all five runs and seven hits in 6 2/3 frames to fall to 14-6 in 30 starts this season with a 3.14 ERA.

Latos is 5-5 in 17 road starts this season and 1-1 with a 3.57 ERA in four starts against Pittsburgh. The right-hander has faced the Pirates 10 times in his career, going 5-1 with a 2.66 ERA.

Pittsburgh holds a slim 7-6 edge on Cincinnati this season, going 4-2 at PNC Park over that stretch. The previous seven meetings between the NL Central inhabitants were held at Great American Ball Park.