Cincinnati entered the series with a 3 1/2-game lead on Pittsburgh in the National League Central and the potential for that cushion to be cut to just a half-game by series' end.
Despite Sunday's loss, the Reds managed to take two of three from the Pirates to extend their lead in the division to 4 1/2 games, after winning five of seven on their weeklong homestand.
"You get greedy, and you start winning every ballgame, and two out of three all of a sudden doesn't appear to be good enough," said Reds manager Dusty Baker. "We'll take a 5-2 homestand. We want more, you always want more. But we won three of four from San Diego, and two out of three and gained a game on the Pirates with three less games on the schedule."
The Reds and the Pirates entered the series with two of the three best records in the National League, and the series marked the first time since the NL Central came into existence in 1994 that the two clubs were at the top of the division this late in the season.
Had the Reds pulled off a win Sunday, it would have marked their fourth straight NL Central sweep. But the magic just wasn't there on a dreary afternoon.
Like they did in the first two games of the series, the Reds got on the board first, chalking up a run in the opening frame on an RBI double from Jay Bruce. Two first-inning hits and one run already matched the club's total from the last time they faced Burnett back on May 30 in Pittsburgh, when Burnett allowed two total hits and no earned runs in seven innings.
The Burnett the Reds saw in May reappeared in the fourth inning. Drew Stubbs knocked a solo homer off the Pirates ace in the third, which marked the last hit the Reds would scrounge for the rest of the game.
Burnett, who came within four outs of tossing his second career no-hitter in Chicago in his previous start, retired 24 of 25, including 18 in a row, before walking two in the ninth inning that forced his exit after 8 2/3. Joel Hanrahan got the last out for his 32nd save of the season.
"[Burnett] was working. Everything was working," said Todd Frazier. "He's a great pitcher, we've seen it all year. He kept us off balance, was throwing strikes and hitting his spots. He was hitting the black all day inside and out with his offspeed and his fastball. You tip your cap to him. It was just one of those days."
Reds starter Homer Bailey didn't have the same fortune.
The Pirates continued to hit deep shots off the Reds righty, who was constantly working out of jams. Bailey lasted just 4 2/3 innings, giving up four runs on nine hits, marking his seventh loss of the season and the second straight start in which he's failed to get past the fifth inning.
"My pitches didn't have depth today," Bailey said. "I just had a hard time getting on top of it and just didn't make very good pitches. I don't think it was anything physical, I don't feel tired at all. Just execution of pitches, that's all it was."
The Reds are now 6-6 against the Pirates this season after two three-game series in Pittsburgh and two more in Cincinnati. Each club has won its respective battles, but the war is far from over.
There are still six games remaining on the schedule between the two sides -- one in Cincinnati (Sept. 10-12), and one in Pittsburgh (Sept. 28-30) in the penultimate series of the season. If a series in the first week of August held these implications and drew 121,030 fans over three games, one can only imagine the September showdown that is still to come.
"It just started," Frazier said. "Six more games is going to be a lot of fun. It feels like a playoff atmosphere to me. Those games are big, and we've just got to keep coming up clutch and do what we have to do. We can't win 'em all. But at the same time, we play our hearts out and give it our best effort."