CINCINNATI -- When Neil Walker settled into the batter's box Thursday afternoon with the score tied in the fifth inning, he knew how dismal his career numbers had been against Cincinnati Reds starter Johnny Cueto.
"Real bad," Walker said. "Actually, awful."
They got better in a hurry.
Walker belted a two-run double off the wall in center to spark a 5-3 victory against the Reds at Great American Ball Park.
With the win, the Pirates (20-23) earned a two-game sweep against the Reds and won their 13th road game this season -- something it took until July 28 to do last season.
The Pirates also allowed just three runs in 18 innings against the Reds, who went into play Thursday atop the National League Central. Before the at-bat in the fifth, Walker was 1 for 11 lifetime against Cueto with three strikeouts.
Game: Pirates vs. Tigers, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
TV, radio: Root Sports, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: RHP Jeff Karstens (2-2, 3.62 ERA) vs. RHP Brad Penny (4-3, 4.11).
Key matchup: The Pirates vs. Penny's hot streak. Penny has won his past three games and four of his past five starts, giving up six earned runs.
Of note: Penny had 17 groundball outs in his most recent start, a win vs. the Kansas City Royals.
Cueto, a 25-year-old right-hander, was 3-0 against the Pirates last season and 9-2 against them in his career before he took the loss to drop to 2-1 on the season.
"As the game went on, he started to go a little more soft and away," said Walker, who hit a knee-high slider about 400 feet on a full count. "I know that, if he throws his off-speed stuff for strikes, it's going to be a tough day for me and everyone else. He didn't really do that, though.
"He wasn't as sharp as he's been in the past, so my plan was to not let him get ahead and just hit it back at him, in the middle of the field."
When the ball sailed over the head of center fielder Chris Heisey, it chased in the second and third runs of an inning in which a two-out rally scored three. Xavier Paul's RBI single accounted for the first run.
In a span of four batters, the Pirates flipped a 1-0 deficit to a 3-1 advantage.
At the beginning, it looked as if starter James McDonald might not give the Pirates a chance.
McDonald (3-3) pushed through a first inning in which he did not give up a run, but needed 27 pitches and a spectacular double play on a diving catch by center fielder Andrew McCutchen to get through.
There also was a trip to the mound by pitching coach Ray Searage.
Things looked to be fully unraveling on McDonald's second pitch of the second inning, when Jay Bruce belted a flat fastball over the center-field wall for a solo home run.
That home run changed the tone of the game for McDonald -- for the better.
"It's almost like it was a slap in the face," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
"Sometimes, you're focused, and you're going out to compete and you just say, 'No more of that. There's not going to be any more of that.'
"And that seemed to be the tone after that."
"I think the home run kind of woke me up," McDonald said of the first of two home runs Thursday by Bruce. "It gave me a little more adrenaline to want to compete. I'm going to need to learn how to kick myself, to go in like that from the first pitch."
"He got [ticked] off after that," said catcher Ryan Doumit, who hit a home run in the sixth. "He's the type of pitcher who has electric stuff, he's got tremendous stuff. And maybe a guy hitting one out was the best thing for him, because it snapped him out of it."
From there, McDonald retired the next seven batters, gave up only five singles the rest of the way and finished his day after working 62/3 innings and striking out four.
McDonald threw far more fastballs than he had in his previous outings, riding it in to right-handers as opposed to throwing his big, swinging curveball ahead in the count.
"It had good life," McDonald said. "You'll have to ask the hitters what it looked like to them. I was on the other end, I just saw them kind of miss it."
Fortunately for the Pirates, when Walker stepped in with that big opportunity against Cueto, he didn't miss.
Colin Dunlap: email@example.com .