For the second straight night, a large early deficit translated into a close loss for the Pittsburgh Pirates, as the Cincinnati Reds scored the first four runs Saturday evening at Great American Ball Park and hung on for a 5-4 win.
Similar to Friday night, when the Reds jumped to a 5-0 advantage en route to a 5-3 victory, Cincinnati put a down payment on Saturday’s game with a four-run frame. This time the first inning was the Pirates’ undoing, with their National League Central rivals jumping on starter A.J. Burnett for four runs on four hits following an early rain delay.
Also like Friday, Pittsburgh pushed back within range but couldn’t finish the comeback because of a hitless effort with runners in scoring position. The Pirates entered the all-star break with MLB’s worst production in such situations, and their lack of clutch hitting has continued into the unofficial second half of the season.
The Bucs’ 0-for-10 RISP performance Saturday culminated in the ninth against flamethrowing lefty Aroldis Chapman. Following Andrew McCutchen’s hustling infield single – his fourth hit of the day – and an error from Reds shortstop Zack Cozart, the Pirates had runners at first and third and nobody out. Needing only a medium-depth flyball or a well-placed grounder to tie the game, Pittsburgh instead got a popup from Russell Martin before Chapman broke the 100-mph mark in striking out pinch-hitter Michael McKenry and Jordy Mercer.
With the win, the Reds (55-42) crept within two games of the Pirates (56-39) for second place in the Central and the top NL wild-card spot. The Bucs dropped to 5-9 in July after holding the major leagues’ best record for a few days; they’ve lost seven of 10 for the first time all season.
The Pirates also were victims of poor fortune Saturday. Mercer’s two-out book-rule double in the third inning would’ve easily scored Garrett Jones from first had it not bounced over the outfield wall; in the seventh, McCutchen tripped while running to third base on what looked to be a routine one-out triple. McCutchen was tagged out after his spill, costing the Bucs a good chance at a run while down 5-3.
The visitors nonetheless climbed closer in the eighth against reliever Alfredo Simon, with Travis Snider’s pinch-hit double to left plating Mercer from first. Simon walked Gaby Sanchez and plunked Starling Marte after Snider’s RBI knock, forcing the Reds to turn to Logan Ondrusek to face Jose Tabata. Ondrusek induced Tabata to ground out to second base, furthering the Pirates’ frustrations.
One night after Pittsburgh starter Francisco Liriano allowed five runs, Burnett turned in a similar performance. The veteran righty struck out eight Reds, but allowed 10 hits through 5 2/3 innings of hard labor. His slog started when Shin-Soo Choo doubled in Cincinnati’s first at-bat, with a bunt single and a Mercer error chasing the Reds’ leadoff man home.
Brandon Phillips (single), Cozart (sacrifice fly) and Devin Mesoraco (double) delivered RBIs later in the inning to give Cincy right-handed starter Mat Latos significant breathing room. However, the Pirates cut the Reds’ edge in half in the top of the second, with Jones’ ninth homer of the year and Cozart’s first throwing error of the game doing the damage.
McCutchen drilled his second homer of the series – and his 12th of the year – over the wall in left-center to make it 4-3 in the fourth. The three-time all-star raised his triple-slash numbers to .310/.383/.494 with four hits (and eight bases) in five at-bats.
Burnett gave a run back in the sixth when back-to-back walks to Chris Heisey and Joey Votto pushed home Cozart, who singled to start the inning. Jeanmar Gomez relieved and fanned Phillips to limit the Reds’ outburst.
The Bucs will try to snag the finale of the three-game series Sunday afternoon when they send surprise all-star Jeff Locke to the mound against the Reds’ Homer Bailey. First pitch is scheduled for 1:05 p.m.