Pirates? Reds' battle for 1st place heats up

Pirates? Reds' battle for 1st place heats up

Published Jun. 6, 2012 12:24 a.m. ET

CINCINNATI — Brandon Phillips looked at the
interviewer as if he had just been told the world was ending in the next hour.

The question was something about what it feels like to be playing the second-place
Pittsburgh Pirates in an argument over first place and Phillips' face took on a
look of total bewilderment.

"Pittsburgh is what?" Phillips asked. Told that the Pirates were
second, only three games behind the Reds before Tuesday night’s game at the
Great American Ball Park, Phillips said, "You're lying. Slap me in the
face right now."

Nobody was brave enough to deliver Phillips even a playful slap, but the Pittsburgh
Pirates delivered a full-body blow to Phillips and the Cincinnati Reds later
that evening, 8-4.

Phillips was bound and gagged with a 0-for-5 and four, f-o-u-r, strikeouts.
With the Reds four runs down and two on in the ninth, closer Joel Hanrahan came
on to strike out Phillips, Jay Bruce and Chris Heisey for his 15th save in 16

So now when somebody talks to Phillips they can tell him the Pirates are still
in second place, but only two games behind the division-leading Reds.

"Man, we already knew you can't take them lightly because they are a major
league team and they are where they are for a reason,” Phillips said. “They're
playing good. You have to go out there and beat them, sink their battleship,
make them walk the plank."

So far it has been Pittsburgh doing the pushing and prodding. They are 4-3
against the Reds this season after beating them 10 out of 14 games last season.

"I'm happy to see them playing good because it is good for baseball,"
Phillips said. "Normally you see them always at the bottom and it's great
to see them playing good, as long as they don't do it this week against

On Tuesday, they did it and they did it to a guy they'd never solved. Reds
starter Homer Bailey was 6-and-0 for his career against the Pirates with a 1.79
ERA. He had faced them in Pittsburgh last week and beat them with a complete

And he was on a three-game winning streak over his last three starts.

That didn't impress the Pirates, even after the Reds took a 2-0 lead in the
first inning.

They lit into Bailey for six runs and eight hits in only three innings,
flicking the gorilla off their shoulders.

The Pirates started fast last year and hung around the top. On this date last
season, the Bucs were one game under .500. This year they are one game over
.500. Last year, though, they faded to 18 games under .500, 24 games behind the
Milwaukee Brewers, for a 19th consecutive losing season.

The fade may not happen this year because if pitching is king, the Pirates are
sitting on the throne. Even though A.J. Burnett wobbled through his five
innings Tuesday (three runs, five hits, four walks, eight strikeouts), the
Pirates have the second-best earned run average in the National League (3.24).

Although the Reds are playing well and own squatter's rights on first place,
Phillips isn't ready to anoint them as baseball's best team.

"I still feel like we have holes in our lineup," he said. "We're
missing some things, but we're playing to the best of our ability with what we
have. We're playing smart baseball, though, and that's what wins games. We're
doing the small things and our bullpen is very nasty. The starters are doing
their job.

"A lot of our batting averages aren't where we'd like and we're not happy
about it, but as long as we're winning we don't worry about those things."

What they need to worry about is taking advantage when runners are perched on
base, begging to come home.

It happened again in the seventh inning Tuesday. Down by 8-3, they had the
bases-loaded, but relief pitcher Chris Resop struck out Heisey.

Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco watched it Tuesday from behind his mask and knows
Pittsburgh's history. He grew up in Punxsutawney, Pa., not far from Pittsburgh,
but he was a Steelers fan, not a Pirates fan.

"It was a little more difficult to be a Pirates fan than it was a Steelers
fan," Mesoraco said. "The Steelers were in the playoffs every year
and going to the Super Bowl."

And the Pirates were in the process of putting together 19 consecutive losing
seasons, something they are trying to shed this year.

"Being from the area, I always watched the Pirates because they were on
TV, but it was more that I was a fan in general and not for any one team."

But he talked glowingly of the current Pirates from his views behind the plate
and from the right-hander's batter's box.

"They have a great pitching staff and we've seen them a few times already
this year," Mesoraco said. "They've thrown the ball well and if you
have good pitching, you are going to be in a lot of games. That's where they
are right now.

“It's not one guy at the top of the rotation. They’re solid
one through five, and they have a good bullpen, so there are not a lot or holes
in that pitching staff."

Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle, who was the Opening Day left fielder for the
Reds in 1982, but played only 19 games, smiled about his team and said,
"Well, we're good enough that they can't schedule us for the homecoming
game anymore."

But he knows the Reds are still the team to chase and he knows they are one
scary beast in the in the snug quarters of Great American Ball Park.

"They remind me of the teams I had in Colorado, the Blake Street
Bombers," Hurdle said. "They know they're never out of a game, they
just know it, and they keep coming at you, confident that they are never
finished until the last out."

Hanrahan made certain he not only turned out the lights in the ninth inning
Tuesday, but he slammed the door and triple locked it.