Reds open up series against the Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates have begun to improve on an uninspiring divisional record during their current 15-game stretch against NL Central foes.

After series wins against the two teams ahead of them in the division, they’ll now try to keep the Cincinnati Reds at a comfortable distance Friday night when the teams open a three-game series at PNC Park.

Pittsburgh (69-64) took two of three in Milwaukee before returning home and capturing two of three against St. Louis with Wednesday’s 3-1 victory. Still, the team is just 26-32 within the Central.

The Pirates have won five of seven behind the pitching staff’s 2.32 ERA, a number Edinson Volquez (11-7, 3.56 ERA) has been nearly in line with over his last six starts.

Volquez, a former Reds starter, hasn’t lost in over a month, going 3-0 with a 2.57 ERA in six outings. He was, however, quite hittable in Saturday’s 10-2 win in Milwaukee. The right-hander surrendered two runs and a career high-matching 11 hits in 5 2-3 innings but earned the victory.

He’s been roughed up by his former team this season, going 0-2 with a 9.64 ERA in two starts. Jay Bruce is 6 for 11 with a home run off Volquez, while Ryan Ludwick is 2 for 13 with seven strikeouts.

Another win would give him his highest total since he went 17-6 in 2008, his first season in Cincinnati.

The Reds (65-69) have won nine of 13 in the season series, including five of seven in Pittsburgh.

After Thursday’s 7-2 home win over Chicago, they’ve won four of five overall. The Reds stole six bases in a game for the firs time in over eight years. Billy Hamilton had one to accompany a 2-for-2 day at the plate with two walks, two runs and two RBIs. The center fielder has hit safely in eight straight against Pittsburgh with a .425 average.

Mike Leake takes the mound hoping for a similar day from the lineup. Leake (10-11, 3.51) limited Atlanta to two hits in 6 2-3 innings of Saturday’s 1-0 win and earned the decision after allowing nine runs in 12 innings over his previous two starts.

"He had A-grade stuff," manager Bryan Price told MLB’s official website.

The right-hander has thrown more innings at PNC (56) than any other visiting ballpark, but he has a 1-3 record and 3.21 ERA to show for it over nine career starts there. He’s gone 11 starts without losing to the Pirates – a 5-0 stretch with a 3.97 ERA.

He’s faced Andrew McCutchen (13 for 48) more than any other hitter in baseball, and it seems that matchup will be renewed after the reigning NL MVP returned to the lineup Wednesday after aggravating an ongoing rib injury Tuesday.

"I’m not going to be passive. I’m going to keep playing like I play," said McCutchen, who is batting .412 in 13 games against Cincinnati this season. "If my body says, ‘No,’ my body says, ‘No.’ But it’s nothing big. This takes time to heal, and there are going to be days like this. We just want those kinds of days to be minuscule."

Among Pirates hitters, Russell Martin has done the most damage against Leake with a 10-for-27 mark.

Pittsburgh’s Pedro Alvarez was out of the lineup Wednesday, a day after he was removed due to left foot discomfort. Alvarez left PNC Park with a walking boot on his foot after Tuesday’s game and was seen wearing the boot in the clubhouse Wednesday, but the club hasn’t issued an update.

The Pirates could also be without Travis Snider after the right fielder left Wednesday’s game with a hamstring injury.