The Pittsburgh Pirates got the best of the Cincinnati Reds in last year's wild-card game, but it's Cincinnati rolling into Monday night's opener of a four-game set in Pittsburgh while the floundering Pirates are searching for answers.
After suffering an 8-7 loss last Monday at home against Pittsburgh, the Reds (8-10) took the next two and have won four of five, matching their win total from their first 13 games. Cincinnati's starters have posted a 0.98 ERA in the last four victories after Homer Bailey tossed six scoreless innings in Sunday's 8-2 win over the Cubs.
A number of Reds hitters are enjoying good stretches, with Joey Votto hitting .368 with 10 runs in his last 11 games after going 6 for 25 through his first seven contests. He has reached base in 17 of his last 18 against Pittsburgh and was 6 for 10 in last week's series with two homers - including one off Francisco Liriano, who will start Monday.
Billy Hamilton is 7 for 18 with five stolen bases during a five-game hitting streak. Devin Mesoraco was 3 for 4 on Sunday with his sixth double, and he's hit safely in all nine games after missing the start of the season with a strained oblique.
''Little League, rec ball, whatever it is. This is definitely the hottest I've ever been,'' Mesoraco said.
The Pirates (8-11), meanwhile, have lost eight of 10. They collected 13 hits Sunday but were 1 for 6 with runners in scoring position in a 3-2 loss to Milwaukee in 14 innings. Andrew McCutchen was 0 for 6 for the fourth time in his career to snap an eight-game hitting streak.
Outfielder Travis Snider was ejected for his role in a third-inning tussle, which was ignited when Gerrit Cole took exception to Carlos Gomez's bat flip following a two-out triple. Snider likely faces a suspension.
"You're not going to get any badges of honor for what happened today,'' manager Clint Hurdle said. ''You just try to move on after it happens and win the game. As far as galvanizing, all this does is provide tangible evidence to anybody who didn't think we were galvanized.''
Pittsburgh will try to solve Mike Leake (2-1, 2.95 ERA) after he limited them to three runs and matched a career high with eight strikeouts over 6 2-3 innings of a 7-5 Reds victory on Tuesday. Leake, who also doubled and hit a two-run homer off Cole, has won four straight starts against the Pirates while posting a 2.49 ERA.
Liriano (0-3, 3.96) is in danger of losing a fourth straight start for the first time since April 17-May 7, 2012. He's compiled a 5.21 ERA in three outings since throwing six scoreless innings in his season debut.
Liriano, who beat the Reds in the wild-card game, fell to 0-4 in five regular-season matchups against the Reds on Wednesday by allowing three runs over seven innings of a 4-0 loss. Votto's seventh-inning homer was the fourth Liriano has allowed in 25 innings this season after not surrendering a fifth until he'd thrown 104 1-3 a year ago.
The left-hander received one run of support in 27 innings in those losing decisions against Cincinnati, and has been used to seeing Pittsburgh's offense come up empty for him in 2014. The Pirates have backed him with just three runs.
McCutchen, Neil Walker and Gaby Sanchez were a combined 14 for 36 (.389) in last week's series with Walker homering three times. Walker has seven homers in his last eight meetings with the Reds.
Russell Martin is 9 for 22 off Leake.
Todd Frazier has five home runs and eight RBIs over his last eight games versus Pittsburgh.