NL Central race is going to be wild

CINCINNATI — Welcome to the National League Central division race. It’s going to be a fun one.

One night after rallying from a four-run deficit to beat Pittsburgh, the Reds fell to the Pirates 6-5 in 11 innings. The Reds once again rallied from four runs down and had a lead in the ninth inning but reigning National League MVP Andrew McCutchen hit a solo home run off of Jonathan Broxton leading off the ninth to tie the game and then hit a two-out solo homer in the 11th off of J.J. Hoover to provide the winning margin.

The NL Central is the only division in baseball that has four teams with records above .500 and all four of those teams are within 2½ games of each other heading into Sunday, the final day before the All-Star break.

"I think we were a little dissatisfied with the way we played in the first half," said right fielder Jay Bruce. "We didn’t get going until the last month-and-a-half or so but if in spring training you told us we’d be within two games of first place at the All-Star break no one would have scoffed at that. We’ve played well. We can still play better and I think we’re going to.

"This is a good division and we’re a good baseball team and I look forward to what’s to come."

Last Saturday the Reds were seven games out of first place after losing a 1-0 game to Milwaukee. One week later they are just 1½ games out. St. Louis’ 10-2 win against Milwaukee Saturday afternoon — the 11th loss in 12 games for the Brewers — evened the two teams at the top of the division standings. Pittsburgh is in fourth place, 2½ games out.

The Reds had been as many as 8½ games behind the Brewers. The Pirates have been as many as nine games back. St. Louis has been 6½ games back.

Since June 1, the Reds have the best record in the NL, 25-15. Pittsburgh is a half-step behind them in the same time period at 24-15.

The Reds could have been sitting just one-half game behind the Brewers and Cardinals if not for McCutchen. He is the new version of Lance Berkman or Albert Pujols when it comes to beating up on the Reds. He’s hit three home runs in the first two games of this series and now has hit 20 homers against the Reds in his career since 2009. No player has hit more against the Reds in that time.

It was the second home run he’s hit off of Broxton in nine career at-bats. His only two hits against Hoover in nine career plate appearances have been solo home runs.

"I know other guys helped out over there but McCutchen is locked in, to say the least," said Bruce. "He put two good swings on the ball. You don’t see that very often, to tie and to win it right there."

Charlie Morton had silenced the Reds through the first five innings, allowing just three hits, but lost his control in the sixth inning. He walked two batters and Chris Heisey and Todd Frazier hit home runs to put the Reds up 5-4.

Starter Mike Leake wasn’t as sharp as he has shown he can be in the past but he managed to get through six innings and limited the potential damage the Pirates could have done given the nine hits, three walks and on hit batter they collected against him. Leake stranded the bases loaded in the first, allowing just one run on a sacrifice fly by Russell Martin. Martin added a second sacrifice fly in the third inning to give the Pirates a 2-0 lead.

The Pirates added two more in the fourth but Leake gave them nothing more in his final two innings as he finished the game having thrown 103 pitches. He got McCutchen to ground out with two runners on for his final out.

As the Pirates left the bases loaded in the first inning, the Reds did so in the 10th. Ramon Santiago and Frazier led off the inning with walks against Ernesto Frieri. Left-hander Justin Wilson replaced Frieri and Bruce drove a single into right field, a ball that appeared would give the Reds the win.

Instead, rookie Gregory Polanco charged the ball and threw a one-hop laser to Martin who got the tag on Santiago before he touched home plate. With runners on second and third, Devin Mesoraco was intentionally walked. Wilson struck out Ryan Ludwick and Brayan Pena to end the inning.

The Pirates left 10 runners on base and were 2-for-11 hitting with runners in scoring position. The Reds left eight runners on base and were 2-for-8 with RISP.

"It was a game that both teams had sitting out there to win and they outlasted us," said manager Bryan Price. "We didn’t let this one slip away. This is one where they went out there and they earned it."

Welcome to the NL Central race.