CINCINNATI -- Pirates starter Ivan Nova was perfect for three innings on Saturday. He faced the minimum 18 Reds batters through six innings. But Jesse Winker got to Nova in the seventh inning, supporting Sal Romano's gem with a solo shot to right field in the Reds' 2-1 win over the Bucs at Great American Ball Park.
Nearing the end of a disappointing second half, Nova rediscovered his first-half form Saturday afternoon, needing only 63 pitches to cruise through six innings. Winker led off the seventh with a Statcast-projected 374-foot shot into the right-field seats, his second homer in five games since coming off the disabled list.
"The past four or five days, I've been hitting the ball well and just had bad luck," Winker said. "That one just got up and got out."
Three batters later, Nova left the game due to right calf discomfort -- some tightness that he said won't keep him from making his next start -- and Scooter Gennett singled in another run off reliever Dan Runzler. Nova struck out six and walked one while allowing three hits in 6 1/3 innings.
"He did his job today," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He kept their team off-balance. Balls out in front, balls behind. He was controlling bat speed. That just got better as the game went on."
Those two runs were all Romano needed in the best start of his young Major League career. The rookie right-hander shut down the slumping Pirates offense, allowing five hits and striking out six without a walk over a career-high eight innings. Romano threw 97 pitches, a whopping 74 of them for strikes.
Romano has posted a 2.10 ERA over his past six starts, all but one of them wins for Cincinnati.
"Sal had all three of his pitches at his disposal. He had 38 pitches after the second inning, and I just hoped to get him through six," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "His strike-to-ball ratio was so significantly high that they put so many balls in play early after that."
After beating the Bucs for the 12th time in 18 meetings this year, the Reds pulled within three games of fourth place in the National League Central standings. The Pirates, meanwhile, were officially eliminated from the NL Central race.
Andrew McCutchen broke up the Reds' shutout with a ninth-inning homer off Kevin Shackelford, his 26th of the season. The Pirates have lost nine of their past 10 games, scoring a combined 13 runs in those nine losses.
"There's still fight. We're just not getting enough things done on offense to put up multiple runs in an inning, let alone in a game," Hurdle said. "We've got to continue working on offense. We're not finding the plate nearly enough as we need to."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Hot corner: The Pirates didn't have many scoring opportunities against Romano, in part because Eugenio Suarez wouldn't let anyone get on base. Suarez was responsible for a handful of highlight-reel moments at third base, none better than his play in the sixth inning. Pirates rookie Jordan Luplow hit a hard grounder down the third-base line, but Suarez stopped it and fired a throw from foul territory to first baseman Joey Votto for the second out of the inning.
"Defense has to be a staple, and [Suarez] made three or four backhand plays and then made the long throw," Price said.
Call to the 'pen again: After Nova's unexpected exit, the Pirates put their bullpen in motion. Right-hander Dovydas Neverauskas ran in from right field … only to be sent back by home-plate umpire Joe West. The veteran umpire signaled that Hurdle had called for a left-hander, so Neverauskas returned to the bullpen. In came Runzler, entering the game with one out and two on. Gennett slapped a single to center, driving in an insurance run for the Reds.
"Unfortunately one of the umpires went down to the bullpen and got Neverauskas, which is completely out of context because I told Joe, I said, 'I've got a right-hander warming up that I'm not going to call in. This is an injury. I'm going to go get the left-hander. Let me call down and get him,'" Hurdle said.
"[West] goes, 'That's fine.' Somebody from the umpiring crew went down and got Neverauskas. That's why he came in. It wasn't Neverauskas' fault. It wasn't [bullpen coach Euclides Rojas'] issue. We just had an aggressive call by the umpire to try to get him in."
"All of the hard work that I put in between starts and the focus from a good bullpen session that I had in Milwaukee, I just tried to follow what I did from there and carry it into today." -- Nova, on his bounce-back start
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Left-hander Cody Reed retired Gregory Polanco with two outs in the ninth inning, picking up his first Major League save and his second as a professional. His only other save came on April 26, 2015, for Class A Advanced Wilmington in the Royals' system.
WHAT'S NEXT Pirates: Right-hander Gerrit Cole will start Sunday's series finale at Great American Ball Park. Cole has sandwiched two of his best starts of the season among a trio of five-run outings over the past month, but one of those scoreless gems came Aug. 26 in Cincinnati. That night, Cole struck out six over seven shutout innings and homered in the Pirates' 1-0 win. First pitch is scheduled for 1:10 p.m. ET.
Reds: The Reds will start rookie right-hander Robert Stephenson (4-5, 5.45 ERA) Sunday at 1:10 p.m. ET in the series finale. Stephenson struggled Tuesday in St. Louis after having strung together four consecutive strong starts, going 4-0 with a 2.38 ERA in that span.