CINCINNATI -- Johnny Cueto augmented the already great stuff he had Wednesday with deft manipulation of the strike zone. He found spots just off the plate that would get him a called strike and lived there, and the Pirates batters did not adapt.
Cueto pitched a complete game in the Cincinnati Reds' 4-0 win against the Pirates at Great American Ball Park and set a career high with 12 strikeouts. He allowed three hits and did not walk a batter.
"Our guys knew early on that he had his stuff," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We knew coming into the game, if he's on, what we were going to have to deal with. Unfortunately, we weren't able to make enough adjustments to put anything together to connect any dots on offense."
The Pirates lost the series, 2-1, and have lost five of their past six games. They finished 3-6 on their nine-game road trip.
Cueto (1-2) earned his first win this season despite the fact that he had pitched seven innings and allowed two or fewer runs in each of his first three starts. He bested Francisco Liriano in a rematch of the wild-card playoff game in October at PNC Park.
Cueto's success Wednesday came as no surprise given his track record facing the Pirates, against whom he has made more starts and thrown more innings than against any other team. He entered the game with a 2.37 career ERA in 21 starts against the Pirates and 121 strikeouts in 133 innings.
Cueto painted the corners of home-plate umpire Quinn Wolcott's strike zone and recorded eight of his strikeouts on called strikes. Wolcott is a Class AAA umpire who was called up to work in the majors.
Making good use of his two-seam fastball, Cueto started it inside to left-handers and allowed it to tail back toward the inside part of the plate. He used that same side of the plate against right-handers, finding called strikes on the outside part of the zone.
"I was getting those pitches, too," catcher Tony Sanchez said. "I know guys weren't happy with the zone, but for Frankie to be effective I need that zone."
Liriano recovered from early trouble to pitch well and escaped jams in the middle innings before allowing a two-run home run to Joey Votto in the seventh.
Not much time elapsed before Liriano learned the hard way why walking Reds leadoff hitter Billy Hamilton is a bad idea. For one thing, Hamilton entered the game hitting .159 with a .196 on-base percentage and a .227 slugging percentage. He can be pitched to.
Once Hamilton, who has blinding speed, reaches base, he's moving. He took off on the first pitch, no matter the fact that left-handed Liriano has an easier time throwing over to first to hold runners.
"I was paying attention too much to the runner in the first inning and, at the same time, trying to execute my pitches," Liriano said.
Liriano walked Votto and threw two wild pitches that allowed Hamilton to score.
The walks and wild pitches, Liriano said, resulted from dry hands. He couldn't grip the ball properly.
"As soon as I started sweating, my hand felt better," he said.
Pitching coach Ray Searage visited the mound and Liriano calmed down. He got a flyout and two groundouts to end the inning and keep the damage at one run.
Liriano twice stranded two runners, in the fifth and sixth, and did not make another costly mistake until the seventh. Cueto poked a single up the middle and Hamilton reached first on a forceout at second.
Sanchez then called for a slide step from Liriano to counter Hamilton's speed, and Votto homered to give the Reds a 3-0 lead.
"That put Frankie in a bad position mechanically," said Sanchez, who noted that he called for the slide step on his own rather than on instructions from bench coach Jeff Banister. "He missed his spot to Votto, and Votto took advantage of it. And that's on me trying to do too much."
Liriano (0-3) finished seven innings and allowed three runs on six hits. Stolmy Pimentel, who had not pitched since April 2, allowed another run in the eighth.
The Pirates return to PNC Park today for a four-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers, who swept the Pirates this past weekend at Miller Park.
Johnny Cueto's pitching line Wednesday compared to his outing in the NL wild-card game Oct. 1 at PNC Park:
Bill Brink: email@example.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.