With the exception of an explosive sixth inning, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a frustrating Friday evening as they dropped a 5-3 decision to the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.
A four-run Reds outburst in the fourth inning, capped by Brandon Phillips’ bases-clearing double, gave the home side a 5-0 advantage. Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Russell Martin each hit solo home runs in the sixth to chase Cincinnati starter Mike Leake, but the Pirates (56-38) couldn’t muster much offense against five Reds relievers.
Pittsburgh lefthander Francisco Liriano got the call to begin the unofficial second half of the season, but he struggled with his control in 4 1/3 halting frames. The 29-year-old struck out four, but also walked four and was charged with five runs against to raise his ERA to 2.44.
Despite Liriano’s inconsistencies, he probably deserved better in the decisive bottom of the fifth. An apparently double-play ball off the bat of Shin-Soo Choo skipped under the glove of second baseman Jordy Mercer, putting runners at first and second with one out. Chris Heisey followed with an infield RBI single off the glove of third baseman Pedro Alvarez to make it 2-0 in favor of the Reds (54-42).
A walk to Joey Votto loaded the bases and ended Liriano’s night, with Justin Wilson taking over from there. Phillips greeted him by roping an inside slider into the left-center field gap, putting three more runs on the board. The Cincinnati bats were quiet from there against Vin Mazzaro, Tony Watson and Bryan Morris, who threw an inning apiece.
Unfortunately, the Reds’ relief battalion danced around trouble to preserve the win; Pittsburgh went 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position. The Pirates’ best chance in the final three innings came in the seventh, when a single and a walk off Alfredo Simon put two on for McCutchen with one out. However, the Bucco center fielder grounded out and cleanup hitter Alvarez fanned on four pitches against Manny Parra.
Aroldis Chapman harnessed his impressive fastball-slider combination to strike out two Pirates in the ninth. Marte singled to right with two outs to keep Pittsburgh alive, but pinch-hitter Michael McKenry popped out to move to the Reds within three games of the Bucs for the National League’s top wild-card spot.
Homers are a fact of life in the cozy Great American Ball Park, and Heisey gave the Pirates a rude wake-up call after the all-star break. The second batter of the game took a Liriano outside offering over the shallow left-field wall to put the Reds up 1-0.
The Pirates’ sticks were dormant through five innings, with Leake inducing soft contact and five strikeouts prior to the sixth. However, Marte broke the shutout with an impressive leadoff opposite-field shot to right-center. McCutchen popped an off-speed pitch over the high wall in left-center one out later, then Martin followed an Alvarez flyout with a no-doubt blast to straightaway left.
With Leake gone, Garrett Jones and Mercer reached on singles against Ondrusek, but Clint Barmes grounded out sharply to third to end the threat.
Jones also had a double as part of his two-hit night. Marte and Martin had two knocks each, too, although Alvarez went 0 for 4.
A.J. Burnett will rev it up for his first second-half start Saturday afternoon at 4:05. The Pittsburgh righty will oppose Mat Latos in the middle game of this NL Central showdown.
Notes: Jones’ error in the seventh ended a 41-inning stretch without one for the Pirates, which tied a season best…The Bucs dropped two games behind St. Louis for first place in the Central. The Cardinals (58-36) beat San Diego 9-6 on Friday…Attendance was 40,831, about 96 percent of capacity in Cincinnati.