PITTSBURGH -- With the National League Central division clinch a full week in their rearview mirror and the postseason on the horizon, what can be made of the Reds' recent offensive funk?
Saturday's 2-1 loss to the Pirates, which ended on Andrew McCutchen's walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, was another anemic output for a lineup that has scored only five runs over its last 36 innings.
"It is what it is. We want to make sure guys get their at-bats to try to get ready and get things rolling," Reds acting manager Chris Speier said. "We still have some time. We'd sure like to see it turn around sooner than later."
The Reds' lone run came in the eighth inning against Jason Grilli in a rally ignited by pinch-hitter Ryan Ludwick's leadoff double. It was Ludwick's first at-bat after he missed eight games with left groin tightness. Following a Wilson Valdez sacrifice, Joey Votto was intentionally walked and Scott Rolen's RBI single into left field scored Ludwick with the tying run. That snapped a 15-inning scoreless streak for Cincinnati's offense.
Cincinnati is batting .229 in September, but has a 14-11 record. On the other hand, the lineup hasn't always featured regulars. On Saturday, Brandon Phillips was given a night off and Votto was lifted for a pinch-runner at second base in the eighth to preserve his surgically repaired left knee.
With four games remaining in the regular season, their 95-63 record means there is no shot at 100 wins.
More importantly, the Nationals' 6-4 win in 10 innings over the Cardinals put them one game ahead of the Reds for the best record in baseball and top seeding in the National League playoff bracket. Cincinnati, which would lose the tiebreaker on its head-to-head record with Washington, needs to be at least a game ahead when the season ends Wednesday.
While the bats are quiet, the pitching has done a good job doing likewise to the other team. A 21-inning scoreless streak came to an end after Jose Arredondo replaced Reds starter Mike Leake for the bottom of the seventh. Clint Barmes hit a leadoff single and advanced to second base on an errant pickoff throw by Arredondo. Following a Brock Holt sacrifice, Alex Presley's double to left field scored pinch-runner Chase D'Arnaud.
In his final start of the regular season, and possibly of 2012, Leake pitched six scoreless innings with four hits, three walks (one intentional) and three strikeouts. Leake, who was skipped the last time through the rotation and was working on nine days' rest, is trying to earn a bullpen spot on the National League Division Series roster.
"I hope I play a role," Leake said. "I hope we stay in it the whole time so I can put some significant role into it. I just have to hope I make it in the 'pen or hope we make it to the second round so I can try to play a role."
Leake put himself in one precarious situation in the second when he walked pitcher Kyle McPherson to load the bases with two outs. To escape, Leake got a nice play on Votto's snag of Presley's sharp grounder between first and second base. Throwing from his backside, Votto fired a throw to second base for the force play.
"I probably shouldn't have walked the pitcher, but I still got out of it," Leake said.
Cincinnati's best chance against McPherson came in the first when Valdez and Zack Cozart began the game with singles. But the rally died as three straight batters failed to get the ball out of the infield.
Pirates reliever Joel Hanrahan got the win after he walked two in the top of the ninth, including one with two outs, before he escaped. Overall, the Reds were 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position and left 12 on base.
"There's no easy at-bats when he's out there," Rolen said of Hanrahan. "We put something together and then they came back and got us there in the bottom."
There was one out in the bottom of the ninth when reliever Jonathan Broxton's 2-2 pitch was launched by McCutchen into the seats in right-center field. It snapped a 0-for-16 slump for McCutchen, a leading NL Most Valuable Player candidate.
"We've had good pitching. It would nice to have that hitting side," Speier said. "I don't have any doubt that it will. I know these guys are pushing towards that. It's just important they get up there and see some pitches and have good at-bats. We're trying to keep everybody ready to get some playing time.
"It was one of those tight games you'd love to win. It's just momentum going forward. But we're not really worried about too much right now."