"Unfortunately, this simplifies things for us," said Neil Walker, who got two of the six hits off Cueto, including the only one that counted, a fourth-inning home run. "We can put our focus toward Wednesday."
With the outcome of the Cardinals' later game in Arizona rendered moot and a Monday tiebreaker for the National League Central title no longer in the works, the Bucs turned to Wednesday night's 8:07 p.m. ET NL Wild Card Game against the Giants in PNC Park -- where they had a 51-30 regular-season record.
"Now we know where we are," said Clint Hurdle, the chipper manager. "We'll go home, work out Tuesday and be ready to fight again."
For all the buzz and counter-buzz about letting Cole take his regular turn on Sunday with the Wild Card Game looming, the resolution found Watson on the mound at the start of the eighth.
Jason Bourgeois led off with a triple. With one out, Cueto -- clearly allowed to bat by Cincinnati manager Bryan Price in that situation for the best chance at getting the 20th win -- bounced a run-scoring single through the drawn-in infield.
Cueto's hit was preceded by the latest of third baseman Josh Harrison's borderline amazing plays of the day -- this time, diving to his left to snare Zack Cozart's liner. Then the pitcher improved his .122 average.
"You've heard it plenty of times: Baseball is a funny game," Harrison said. "We're out there trying to make all the plays, then Cueto just finds a hole."
It came as great relief to Price, who appreciated how outlandish it was to let Cueto bat.
"The Cardinals are watching the game going, 'What's this idiot doing?' Runner at third and one out," Price recreated. "Cozart hits an absolute missile and the Harrison kid makes another great play at third, because that would have answered that. The situation was like, 'Hey, you know what? The most important guy for me today was Johnny Cueto getting a chance at 20.' And we could ... not score that run and forfeit the opportunity for Johnny to survive and pitch the ninth and maybe still win 20."
Kristopher Negron's ensuing two-run homer off Justin Wilson took the drama out of closer Aroldis Chapman's appearance.
Was Cole up for a start that was widely debated? He gave up a run on his first out of the game, then spaced two hits across the rest of his seven innings, during which he struck out 12 without issuing a walk. Cole retired 21 of the last 23 men he faced, and, across his last two outings, he has an ongoing streak of 37 of 41 men retired.
"I tried to match [Cueto] as long as I could," Cole said. "I thought we battled, never thought we were really out of the game. We did the best we could."
It was a classic staredown between the high-profile starting pitchers.
Cole blinked in the first, letting two leadoff singles set up a run, then pried his eyes open.
"I fell behind the eight-ball in the first. Two singles burned us," Cole said.
Cueto blinked in the fourth, when Walker took him into the right-field seats for his 23rd homer.
"When Walker caught us back up, I tried to match [Cueto] as long as I could," Cole said. "I tried to give the team a chance to win, the best and longest I could."
Negron and Brandon Phillips led off the first with singles, and it turned into a run on Todd Frazier's high-chopped grounder to third.
As he had in his last start, when he retired the last 17 Atlanta Braves he faced, Cole began mowing them down following another single by Negron with one out in the third.
"Wasn't he good?" Hurdle posed the rhetorical question, eyes sparkling. "It's fun to watch him as he continues to just grow."
While it might have been even more fun to watch Cole grow in the Wild Card Game, the Bucs embraced the opportunity he had given them on Sunday.
"We didn't come in today saying, 'Let's not throw Cole.' Regardless of what outsiders might think," Harrison said, "we came in today wanting to win the division, and Cole starting gave us a great chance."
The Pirates hoped to have to sit around a few hours after the conclusion of their game, while the Cardinals decided their destination. Instead, they quickly packed up and headed home.
On their way off the field and from the dugout into the clubhouse, the players walked through their manager's handshake and "Like the fight!" exhortations.
"I like our team," Hurdle said. "I do like the fight, the grit. It will be an exciting time for us when we get home."