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The Pittsburgh Pirates haven't finished above .500 or qualified for the postseason since 1992, but it appears those trends will end in 2013. Pittsburgh is 19 games over .500 and one game behind the first-place St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central as it begins the second half Friday by visiting the Cincinnati Reds. The Pirates lead the Washington Nationals by nine games in the wild card race and with their major league-leading 3.07 ERA, a collapse doesn't seem likely.
Cincinnati, the defending NL Central champion, trails the Cardinals by five games, but leads Washington by five games for the second wild card spot. "We need to stay nipping at their heels and let them know we're here," Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo told MLB.com about the pursuit of St. Louis and Pittsburgh. Francisco Liriano leads the Pirates with nine victories and will oppose Mike Leake, who shut down Pittsburgh when Cincinnati defeated Liriano 4-1 on June 17.
TV: 7:10 p.m. ET, ROOT Sports (Pittsburgh), FSN Ohio (Cincinnati)
PITCHING MATCHUP: Pirates LH Francisco Liriano (9-3, 2.00 ERA) vs. Reds RH Mike Leake (8-4, 2.69)
Liriano is working on a string of five quality starts, capped by a 5-0 victory over Oakland on July 10 when he allowed four hits in seven innings. The 29-year-old has yielded two or fewer runs in 10 of his 12 starts and four in each of the other two outings. Liriano is 0-2 with a 2.25 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in two starts versus Cincinnati - including the June 17 loss when he yielded two runs and struck out six in six innings - and has fared well against Shin-Soo Choo (5-for-24, eight strikeouts).
Leake has allowed three or fewer earned runs in 10 of last 11 starts, including a 6-2 victory at Milwaukee on July 10 when he yielded two runs, four hits and four walks in 8 1/3 innings. The 25-year-old is enjoying his finest season by mixing his pitches better and throwing more curveballs and changeups. Leake is 4-3 with a 3.12 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in 14 starts against Pittsburgh and has held All-Stars Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez to a .219 average in 64 combined at-bats.
1. Pittsburgh's 20 consecutive sub-.500 seasons is a North American major professional sports record.
2. Cincinnati All-Star 2B Brandon Phillips, who is hitting .404 with runners in scoring position, has 71 RBIs. His career high is 98.
3. Pittsburgh leads the season series 6-4. The Reds and Pirates play nine more times in 2013 beginning Friday, including a season-ending three-game series in Cincinnati from Sept. 27-29.
PREDICTION: Reds 3, Pirates 2