The Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t separated by much in an NL Central division that is one of the strongest in baseball.
Given how well Mike Leake has pitched of late, he may be able to help the Reds provide more distance between the clubs in the opener of a four-game series with the visiting Pirates on Monday night.
Cincinnati (42-28) and Pittsburgh (41-28) trail major league-best St. Louis (44-25) in a division that could end up providing the NL with half of its postseason qualifiers by season’s end.
The defending Central champion Reds have won five of seven after beating Milwaukee 5-1 on Sunday. Jay Bruce, who is hitting .407 over his last six, homered for the second time in three days.
Bruce, though, is just 5 for 48 (.104) with 18 strikeouts in his las 12 games versus the Pirates.
Shin-Soo Choo has hit safely in his last five, but manager Dusty Baker gave him Sunday off. He’ll likely be back in the lineup versus the Pirates.
“I just told him to stay in and rest some, come in late,” Baker said. “I don’t think he knows how to.”
Leake (6-3, 2.76 ERA) has been playing at a high level as well, going 4-1 with a 1.13 ERA over his last six starts. He had another solid outing Wednesday, giving up one run and three hits in eight innings of a 2-1 win over the Chicago Cubs.
The right-hander has given up five earned runs in 40 innings during his hot stretch and struck out five over six innings to beat Pittsburgh 2-0 on June 1. Leake, though, also was roughed up by the Pirates on April 12, giving up five runs and 10 hits in six innings of Cincinnati’s 6-5 loss.
Pittsburgh has won four of the six versus the Reds this season and has six victories in its last nine games overall after beating the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-3 on Sunday.
Alex Presley hit a solo homer and Pedro Alvarez added a three-run shot, but Andrew McCutchen had his seven-game hitting streak snapped for the Pirates, who are starting a nine-game road trip.
Pittsburgh had two hits with runners in scoring position Sunday after going 2 for 24 in such situations over its previous three contests.
“We needed someone to click one with men on base and (Alvarez) clicked one,” manager Clint Hurdle said.
Pittsburgh will look to Francisco Liriano to help it win for only the third time in nine tries in Cincinnati.
Liriano (5-2, 2.36) didn’t have his best stuff Wednesday when he allowed four runs in six innings, but the offense provided enough support in a 12-8 win over San Francisco. It marked only the second time in seven starts he’s given up more than one run, entering that outing with a 1.75 ERA.
The left-hander didn’t have the benefit of a potent offense the last time he faced the Reds, though, giving up one run and striking out a season-high 11 in six innings against Leake earlier this month.
Alvarez homered in a 5-4 win over the Reds on June 2, but he’s hitting just .128 in his last 11 versus Cincinnati.