The Cincinnati Reds pay a visit to the increasingly daunting PNC Park on Friday, as they open a key three-game series with the NL Central-rival Pittsburgh Pirates.
Despite winning 14 of its last 19 games and entering the weekend 12 games above .500, Cincinnati finds itself in third place in the NL Central, 2 1/2 games back of St. Louis and one game behind the surging Pirates. The Reds swept a quick two-game set at home over the Indians earlier this week, but then lost the next two in Cleveland to close out the rare home-and-home interleague series.
The Reds were done in by Jason Giambi's three-run home run in the sixth inning of Wednesday's 5-2 loss to Cleveland. The following night, the Tribe erupted for seven runs in the fourth. The back-to-back losses dropped the Reds to 13-14 on the road, while they are 20-7 at home this season.
Pittsburgh has won three straight and 16 of its last 20 to move into second place in the division standings. The Pirates have won six in a row at home, their longest such streak since 2008. The pitching staff has been behind that success, boasting a collective 1.45 ERA during those six wins.
Despite the team's recent success, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle downplayed the significance of the divisional showdown.
"I'm not wired that way," Hurdle said. "I need to be constant, a guy they can depend on to show up the same way every day. If I show up with a heightened sense of awareness, it might affect some in a good way, some in a bad way. Every game has value to me, and that's a point I stress to them.
"It will be an interesting series. One we're looking forward to as, I'm sure, is Cincinnati."
The Pirates are coming off Thursday's 1-0 win over the Tigers in 11 innings, as six Bucs pitchers combined for the shutout.
The Pirates will hand the ball to Wandy Rodriguez, who is seeking a career- best fifth straight victory. However, the southpaw was not his sharpest at Milwaukee on Sunday, when he allowed three runs on seven hits and exited after five innings. Rodriguez is also winless over his last five outings against Cincinnati with a 5.28 ERA.
For the Reds, starter Johnny Cueto is returning to the ballpark where he suffered a strained right triceps on April 13 and was subsequently shelved for five weeks.
Cueto is coming off a solid showing against the Cubs on Sunday. He allowed just one run in seven innings but came away with a no-decision.
"Outstanding stuff," manager Dusty Baker said after the game. "That's Johnny. He was throwing like he wasn't afraid of hurting anything. He was a little tentative his last time out (against the Mets), but he was a lot sharper and more aggressive than he was in New York."
The Pirates swept a three-game series over the Reds at PNC Park during the season's first month (April 12-14).