CINCINNATI -- The Reds have spent the last 96 days in last place in the National League Central, but they spent the past three days climbing closer to the fourth-place Pirates. The Reds rode a five-run sixth to a 5-2 win on Sunday, completing a three-game sweep at Great American Ball Park and pulling within two games of the Bucs.
"You want to strive for a lot more [than fourth place], but we have a shot at the next best thing than where we are," said Reds manager Bryan Price, whose club has been in last place since June 13.
Gerrit Cole silenced Cincinnati's lineup for five innings, but the Reds came alive in the sixth.
Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett homered off Cole, who faced four batters without recording an out before exiting. Just like that, a potentially dominant performance turned into the 11th start in which Cole has been charged with at least four earned runs.
"They're looking to slug. It's a tight ballgame, and they're just looking to do some damage," Cole said. "When you make mistakes and they put good swings on them, that's what happens."
The Pirates managed only two hits until the eighth inning, when John Jaso ripped a two-run homer to right field off reliever Luke Farrell.
"You always anticipate a low-scoring game against [Cole]," Price said.
Reds starters Homer Bailey, Sal Romano and Stephenson held the Bucs to one run in 19 2/3 innings on the mound this weekend. The Pirates have scored only 22 runs over their last 11 games, going 1-10 while batting .213 as a team during that stretch.
"I wish I knew what it was," Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer said. "Can't get really anything going. Can't put a full inning together. We'll get one or two guys on, maybe, then that's about it. We can't continually put guys on, build an inning and continue to make it a long inning and a stressful inning for the pitcher."
Officially eliminated from postseason contention on Saturday night, the Pirates have lost 24 of their last 34 games since they were last .500 on Aug. 11. Sunday's loss was Pittsburgh's 82nd of the season, clinching a second straight losing season.
"When you get eliminated and you're on the verge of a losing season, it reminds us all that we didn't do our jobs very well. We all have work to do," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "We have the capacity to be better, the expectation to be better and now we continue the work to be better."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Out of the fire: The Pirates only mounted one real offensive threat, when Chris Stewart drew a leadoff walk and moved to third on Cole's double in the third inning.
Stephenson would let them advance no further, however. Jaso struck out, Jordan Luplow popped out to shortstop Zach Vincej, and Andrew McCutchen popped out behind the plate. Just like that, Stephenson escaped the only jam he'd have to pitch through Sunday afternoon.
"My mindset [in the third inning] was, 'I'm not going to let anyone score,'" Stephenson said.
Walk, then (home) run: Before giving up home runs to Suarez and Gennett, Cole walked a pair of batters. He fell behind Jesse Winker, who saw six pitches, then Suarez homered to left-center. Cole then walked Joey Votto on five pitches before Gennett hit another two-run shot to right field.
"I just didn't make enough good pitches to Winker to start the inning off. Suarez was all over the changeup at the bottom of the zone," Cole said. "I lost Votto, made a mistake to Gennett, and that was it. … I didn't put myself in a good position walking the leadoff batter that inning."
"The pitching that we've faced lately has been good - throwing strikes, mixing pitches. We haven't pushed on anybody, though, for a while. … They keep attacking. They keep mixing the pitches in. We haven't been able to catch up or do anything with a lot of consistency."--Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, on his team's offensive struggles
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Gennett's home run was his 25th of the season, giving the Reds five players with at least 25 homers this season: Votto, Adam Duvall, Scott Schebler, Suarez and Gennett. That ties the club record set in 1956 by Frank Robinson, Wally Post, Ted Kluszewski, Gus Bell and Ed Bailey.
This was the last game of the year between the two NL-Central rivals. The Reds won the season series, 13-6, the first time since 2009 they have beaten the Bucs 13 times in one year.
Cole has given up 30 home runs this season. The Pirates' single-season record for home runs allowed by a pitcher is 32, set by Murry Dickson in 1951.
WHAT'S NEXT Pirates: The Pirates return home Sunday night to prepare for a three-game series against the postseason-contending Brewers, beginning Monday night at PNC Park. Right-hander Jameson Taillon will pitch the opener, returning to the rotation after skipping a start. Taillon has struggled in the second half, posting a 7.17 ERA in 11 starts. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. ET.
Reds: The Reds are idle Monday, then begin a three-game series against St. Louis at 7:10 p.m. ET Tuesday. Jackson Stephens (2-0, 2.38) will make his first start since July 1 against the Cardinals' Jack Flaherty (0-1, 6.08).