Cincinnati Reds ace Johnny Cueto has been a nemesis of the Pirates throughout his career, but it appeared they might get the best of him Sunday after solo home runs in each of the first two innings.
But Cueto didn't flinch and didn't give in -- not even to multiple chants of "Cue-to, Cue-to" from the crowd in some high-pressure situations -- and he pitched the Reds to a 3-2 win against the Pirates in the finale of a three-game series at PNC Park.
After those two early home runs, Cueto (16-8) showed again why he is one of the best pitchers in baseball as he went eight innings, gave up nine hits and two runs, struck out six and walked one.
It was the 13th time in his past 16 starts that Cueto, who threw 81 of 113 pitches for strikes, gave up two or fewer runs, and it was his fourth win against the Pirates this year. He improved to 17-4 against them for his career, including a 10-2 mark at PNC Park.
He became the third pitcher this season, along with Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw and San Franacisco's Madison Bumgarner, to get his 16th win.
"He is a confident guy on the mound," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He knows what he is doing and he is as good as any pitcher in the league. We had a couple of opportunities to extend the lead and we couldn't do it. He made pitches."
Pirates third baseman Josh Harrison, who led off the bottom of the first inning with a solo home run, said the team wanted to be aggressive against Cueto because once he settled in, it would be tough to get much of anything.
"He is a good pitcher, but you have to get to him early," Harrison said. "He stuck around and got out of some jams when he needed to, and that's baseball. ... I enjoy facing him, I think we all do, and when you get a chance to face a guy like that, you want to beat him."
After Harrison's home run, Jordy Mercer added a solo homer in the bottom of the second to extend the lead to 2-0.
The lead could have been 3-0, but Starling Marte, who led off the inning with a single, was picked off first by Cueto and caught in a rundown for the first out.
Meanwhile, the Reds' scoring was handled by outfielder Chris Heisey, who hit two home runs and drove in all three runs. Hurdle said the pitches he hit were a result of poor location by Pirates pitchers.
Heisey's first homer came in the top of the fifth and was a two-run shot off Francisco Liriano that tied the score, 2-2. His second homer in the top of the ninth off reliever Jared Hughes turned out to be the winner.
It also put Cueto in line to get the win and allowed the Reds to bring in closer Aroldis Chapman to pitch the bottom of the ninth and earn his 29th save.
Hughes (6-5), who was the loser, said the pitch to Heisey on the home run was a sinker that didn't quite get to the right spot, but credited Heisey with making a great adjustment on his swing.
The fact that Cueto finished the eighth was a testament to the faith manager Bryan Price has in him, as he ran into some trouble that inning but was allowed to stay in and pitch his way out of it even though his pitch count was above 100.
Harrison led off with a single, and after Andrew Lambo popped out, Andrew McCutchen singled to put runners on first and second with one out.
But Cueto got Neil Walker to ground out, then third baseman Kristopher Negron made an incredible diving catch of a popup in foul territory off the bat of Ike Davis to retire the side.
The loss spoiled another excellent outing by Liriano, who went seven innings, gave up five hits and two runs, and struck out five with three walks.
One of those walks, however, came back to haunt him. A free pass to Ryan Ludwick to lead off the top of the fifth put him on for Heisey's first home run.
"Just a changeup that was just up in the zone, and Heisey covered it," Hurdle said. "I thought Frankie gave us a really good effort, a really good outing. He was solid through four, he made the one pitch that was elevated a bit in the fifth and was stretched a bit in the fifth, and then answered in the sixth and the seventh.
"It was a really good start, really good stuff from him. We threw a lot of pitches ... and two of them ended up costing us."
Liriano added: "I felt good. [Cueto] is a great pitcher and a friend of mine, too, but I just have to try and do my job and keep the team in the ballgame. I am just trying to go deep into games. I was using the inside of the plate, keeping things down and I just made the one mistake."
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.
First Published August 31, 2014 4:52 PM