CINCINNATI -- As the Pirates sat in the visiting clubhouse staring vacantly at the final minutes of the World Cup a hemisphere away, you had to wonder if they were thinking about which was more likely -- Argentina putting a ball in a net, or a Pirates batter putting a ball in play against Aroldis Chapman.
Their game Sunday had just ended almost exactly the way it did Friday night, with Chapman blowing away three Pirates in order on pitches of up to 102 mph, so it was painfully evident that had the incomparable Reds closer been available to pitch Saturday, Clint Hurdle's team would have gone to the All-Star Game having been swept by the Reds and having dropped 6 of their past 7.
As it is, Andrew McCutchen's historic performance in the middle game let them avoid it, but they're still 4-9 against Cincinnati and a combined 13-26 against the three teams they're chasing in the manic National League Central Division.
"It's very important, the way we've played against them and the whole division," said Reds All-Star Devin Mesoraco, who as a kid in Punxsutawney visited PNC Park infrequently, in part due to proximity and in bigger part because it was tough to be a Pirates fan in that era. "Every year we set out to win the division and to do that you've got to play well in these games; they're almost like two games because you gain a game in the standings in every one."
Or fail to do so, as the Pirates did on a day Reds ace Johnny Cueto was very gettable. He ran a bunch of three-ball counts early, saw his pitch count soar, was interrupted by a 56-minute rain delay and somehow went back out there and wriggled off the hook even after Neil Walker's solo home run pulled the Pirates to within 4-3 in the sixth.
"Yeah, we did [feel Cueto was vulnerable] and we were able to get after some pitches, elevate the pitch count -- not a lot of hits, but we made him work," Hurdle said after Cueto's career record against the Pirates went to 18-7. "A couple different times we were just one hit away from poppin' it. We couldn't get that last big hit when we had runners out there."
And then there was the episode when they had a runner out there, and then he was suddenly, inexplicably gone. Russell Martin, who made some of the best defensive plays of the season in this series behind the plate, was on second via a two-base error with nobody out in the sixth.
He drew two curiously close pick-off throws while Ike Davis went busily about the business of striking out (do you miss Travis Ishikawa?). Then, on an 0-2 pitch, Martin bolted for third for reasons known only to him. He was thrown out comfortably, obliterating the final legitimate opportunity to derail Cueto.
Hurdle took responsibility for that brain cramp, saying "we probably pushed the envelope too far there," but it was clear Martin ran on his own.
Thus, a nine-year major league veteran made the first out of the inning at third base, and according to baseball's well-known penal code, when you do that, you deserve to lose.
The real crime is that it wasn't just Cueto who was vulnerable Sunday. The Reds had no Joey Votto, no Brandon Phillips, no cleanup hitter (they used .224-hitting Chris Heisey with his 12 RBIs in that spot) and no second baseman.
Kristopher Negron batted eighth and started instead of Phillips' understudy Ramon Santiago, and when he stood in against Francisco Liriano in the second, it was for his sixth major league at-bat, his second with the Reds.
Naturally, Negron rifled a 1-1 changeup into the seats in right-center field, chasing home Mesoraco (who had walked) and Heisey (who had blooped a double near the right-field line).
"He has a good changeup," Negron opined. "I was looking for one up, somethin' to drive."
This from a guy with -- let me check it -- one major league home run now. One.
Liriano wasn't totally awful in his first start since June 10, but Stolmy Pimentel was, and Vance Worley was worse. I don't have the exact metric, but the Pirates' record in games in which pitching coach Ray Searage comes to the mound three or more times can't be good.
"That was a slider off Pimentel," Mesoraco said about the one he hit off the wall in left center to drive in Jay Bruce, and though the Pirates thought Worley made a good pitch to Todd Frazier on Todd Frazier Plush Doll Day, Todd plushed it into the Pirates bullpen for the 6-3 lead that stood.
So the Pirates are off until Friday, which is nice, because it's going to take most of this week to forget all the lost opportunities of the past week.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org.