Reds need to solve Pirates

The Cincinnati Reds have risen to the top of the NL Central mainly by taking care of divisional rivals.

Their inability to beat the division’s perennial doormat is threatening to push them out of first place.

Reds starter Johnny Cueto will try to continue his superb return from injury and help Cincinnati avoid a two-game sweep at home to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday afternoon.

A 5-0 loss Wednesday dropped Cincinnati (25-18) to 1-4 in the season series with the Pirates (19-23), who have finished last in the Central four years running. The Reds are 19-7 against the rest of the Central, and lead St. Louis by one-half game atop the division.

After batting .315 in their previous eight games, the Reds managed just five hits Wednesday as they saw their five-game overall winning streak and seven-game run at home come to an end.

Pedro Alvarez and Andrew McCutchen homered for the Pirates, who snapped a six-game skid.

With Cueto (2-0, 0.00 ERA) starting, Cincinnati has a good chance to bounce back and post its 12th win in 15 games. The right-hander is 7-0 with a 1.74 ERA in his last nine starts against Pittsburgh and has not allowed an earned run in his first two outings since returning from irritation in his pitching arm.

Cueto allowed five hits over six scoreless innings May 8 in Chicago, then gave up three unearned runs Saturday while pitching into the eighth inning of a 7-3 victory over St. Louis.

“He looked great,” manager Dusty Baker told the Reds’ official website. “He’s been working hard. He’s running every day and doing what it takes to get in shape and stay in shape and be strong and be able to go deep in ballgames, which is what he did.”

The Reds could also get a boost Thursday if Jay Bruce is able to return from illness.

The right fielder, who sat out Wednesday’s loss, was 6 for 15 with two home runs against the Pirates from April 15-18, and is a .356 hitter in 22 career home matchups with Pittsburgh.

However, Bruce, was one of the few Cincinnati hitters who failed to take full advantage of a struggling James McDonald (2-3, 6.20) during an 11-2 rout April 16. He went 1 for 4 with a walk in that game, while Ramon Hernandez was 3 for 4 with four RBIs.

Hernandez, who is batting a team-best .353, might get another chance to face McDonald and extend his major league-best hitting streak to 12 games after resting Wednesday.

McDonald, who gave up seven runs over 4 1-3 innings in his only start against the Reds, struggled again Friday in Milwaukee after a string of strong outings.

The right-hander gave up five runs, six hits and three walks over four innings of a 5-2 defeat. He had been 2-0 with a 1.00 ERA in his previous three starts.

Pirates shortstop Ronny Cedeno, batting .346 in his last 17 games, is 5 for 16 in his career against Cueto.