PITTSBURGH -- Reds starter Johnny Cueto has dueled well with some of the best pitchers in baseball all season -- Mark Buehrle, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, Zack Greinke and CC Sabathia.
On Wednesday, it was the Pirates' A.J. Burnett on the other side. This time, it didn't end so well for Cueto, as a two-run sixth inning resulted in a 2-1 Reds loss at PNC Park.
"When you're No. 1, you'll be faced with many of those situations, because you're facing other No. 1's," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "Johnny has risen to the occasion a number of times. He matched up with a bunch of real good pitchers this year. He certainly could have had a chance to win that one."
Cueto entered with an 11-3 record and 2.55 ERA lifetime vs. Pittsburgh, including 7-1 at PNC Park. But Burnett has been no slouch when he's at home, entering 2-0 with a 1.27 ERA in four starts.
All three of Cueto's losses this season have come over his last four starts, but he wasn't sharp in those previous defeats. Against the Pirates, he was solid, giving up two runs and five hits over seven innings with four walks (two intentional) and five strikeouts.
While it was a good effort, it did not equal that of Burnett, who allowed one unearned run over seven innings with two walks and three strikeouts.
"We needed a big outing from him tonight, to match up with Cueto," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "You can watch a lot of games and you won't see one much better pitched than the one you saw tonight."
Zack Cozart started the game optimistically for Cincinnati when he hit a ground-rule double to left field. Drew Stubbs dropped a sacrifice bunt and reached on third baseman Pedro Alvarez's fielding error. Jay Bruce scorched a line drive that was snared by first baseman Matt Hague to save extra bases and two runs. Cincinnati had to settle for Brandon Phillips' sacrifice fly to left field that scored Cozart for a 1-0 lead.
"Jay hit the heck out of that ball," Baker said. "That ball could have been down that corner, but it wasn't. We kind of had [Burnett] reeling in the very, very beginning. But then he settled down. We just didn't muster, really, any hits."
Burnett went on to retire 17 straight batters until a two-out walk to Stubbs in the sixth. Bruce reached on an error but Burnett escaped unscathed. He recorded 13 of his outs via ground balls.
"You saw how many balls we topped tonight," Baker said. "He must have been sinking and moving to top that many balls against us. He threw a really good game against us.
"You can't take anything from him. He was excellent tonight."
Unlike Burnett's free pass to Stubbs, a two-out walk to Neil Walker in the bottom of the sixth would lead to Cueto's undoing.
Following Walker, Cueto was a strike away from closing out the inning when his full-count pitch went for a bouncing single into right field by Garrett Jones. Hague followed with a double through the gap in right-center field that scored two runs.
"I don't think about the walk," said Cueto, who threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of 30 batters. "One bad pitch and things happened. I felt real good tonight."
In the ninth, with one out against Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan, Chris Heisey became the potential tying run with a grounded single into left field. Joey Votto, who got his first rest of the season, emerged as a pinch-hitter and lined a single to left field to become the go-ahead run. Hanrahan escaped by striking out Miguel Cairo and Ryan Hanigan to end the game.
"Things were working out our way, but he struck himself out of trouble," Baker said.
Cueto is now 5-3 with a 2.54 ERA this season.
"[Burnett] threw zeros. I wanted to throw zeros and I wanted to see who wins," Cueto said via an interpreter.
This time, it wasn't the Reds, as they saw a six-series unbeaten streak end after dropping two of three in Pittsburgh. It was also only the fourth time in 14 tries that they dropped the final game of a series.
On the other hand, Cincinnati emerged from a 20 games in 20 days stretch in very good shape. The Reds went 12-8 in that span, which included the first 14 games coming against teams with winning records.
And because of a Cardinals loss, the Reds still head into Thursday's off-day in Houston with a 1 1/2-game lead in the National League Central.
"That's a much welcomed off-day tomorrow," Baker said. "It would have been better with a win."