PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Cincinnati Reds likely envisioned themselves in the thick of a pennant race as the calendar turned to September. Yet, they're five games under .500 after injuries wreaked havoc on one of baseball's more talented rosters.
Even Johnny Cueto, one of the game's best pitchers, hasn't been immune to the tough times endured by the Reds this season.
On Sunday, Cueto overcame an early jolt to earn his 16th win and Chris Heisey hit two home runs, including a tiebreaking shot in the ninth inning, as the Reds beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 3-2.
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Cueto (16-8) gave up a home run to Josh Harrison on his first pitch of the game. Jordy Mercer homered off Cueto in the second for a 2-0 lead.
"I was just ready to hit," Harrison said. "He's a strike-thrower. Sometimes when you face a guy you get familiar and you see some pitches out of his hand really well."
Cueto wound up pitching eight innings and tied Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw for the major league lead in victories. Cueto worked around nine hits, striking out six and walking one.
"I feel happy because I have 16 wins," Cueto said. "But at this point, with everything that happened to us, all I've got to do is just look ahead."
Said manager Bryan Price: "He's pitched in some tough luck this year."
"He's been outstanding and arguably the best in the National League for me, if not the best without question," Price said.
Price credits his ace's results with the mental strength Cueto has displayed during an arduous season.
"I've had guys that have lost the anticipation of being able to win," Price said. "That can't happen. It's unacceptable and he's never given in to that perception, that he doesn't have a great chance to win every time he takes the mound even though we've had a challenging year."
Heisey's solo drive with one out in the ninth off Jared Hughes (6-5) helped the Reds avoid getting swept at PNC Park. Heisey began the day with just five homers in 229 at-bats this year.
"It's been a challenging year for him," Price said. "I don't think he's accomplished what he set out to do this year."
Aroldis Chapman struck out two in a perfect ninth for his 29th save.
Heisey tied the game at 2 in the fifth, connecting after Ryan Ludwick drew a leadoff walk from Francisco Liriano.
Heisey finished 2 for 4 and drove in all three of Cincinnati's runs.
"It feels good to help the team get a W," Heisey said. "We needed one today after losing the first ones. We couldn't have done it without the way Johnny Cueto pitched today. He's the definition of an ace in the big leagues."
Liriano cruised through his first four innings, throwing an efficient 43 pitches before he ran into trouble in the fifth. Cincinnati's first hit off Liriano didn't come until Todd Frazier singled with two outs in the fourth.
Liriano threw a season-high 111 pitches over seven innings. He gave up two runs, five hits, three walks and struck out five.
"Everything was working down," Liriano said. "I was using the inside half of the plate, down-and-in and everything was down. I just made a mistake."
Reds: C Devin Mesoraco and OF Jay Bruce were out of the starting lineup. Bruce came in as a defensive replacement in the ninth.
Pirates: RHP Charlie Morton (hip) threw a bullpen session before the game. He made a rehab start Thursday for Double-A Altoona. ... RHP Stolmy Pimentel (ankle) is nearing a return after throwing two innings for Altoona on Friday. ... 1B-3B Pedro Alvarez (foot sprain) began hitting off a tee. ... OF Travis Snider (hamstring) has not played since Wednesday and is still day-to-day.
Reds: After an off-day, Cincinnati starts a three-game set at Baltimore on Tuesday night. RHP Mat Latos (5-3, 3.15 ERA) opens for the Reds against RHP Bud Norris (11-8, 4.00).
Pirates: Pittsburgh begins a 10-game road trip Monday with a three-game series in St. Louis. RHP Gerrit Cole (7-4, 3.65) opposes Cardinals RHP Lance Lynn (14-8, 2.79) in a rematch of the matchup that the Pirates won 5-2 on Aug. 26.
Reds OF Billy Hamilton stole his 54th base of the season in the seventh inning, tying the Reds rookie record for stolen bases in a season. Bob Bescher stole 54 in 1909. Beschre owns the club season record - 81- in 1911.
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Prior to the game, the Reds traded reliever Jonathan Broxton to the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers. Price said Broxton's presence will be greatly missed.
"He may be the best I've ever had in the bullpen as far as being professional and preparing the right way and showing everybody else how to get it done," Price said.