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Pirates shutout Reds to take sole possession of first place

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Charlie Morton battled through an 83 minute rain delay to throw five shutout innings and the offense did just enough to take advantage, as the Pirates hung on for a 2-0 win over the Reds Monday night at PNC Park. The win puts the Pirates alone in first place atop the N.L. Central.

During his first two starts against the Reds this season, both complete-game victories in Cincinnati, Charlie Morton finished off the NL Central foe in quick fashion: two hours, 36 minutes on April 15 and two hours, 17 minutes on May 18.

On Monday night, it took Morton a couple of hours to get out of the first inning. Not that he, or the unusually large weeknight crowd of 22,016 at PNC Park, minded riding out the lightning in order to storm into first place in the National League Central standings.

Morton (8-5) avoided getting scorched thanks to a bases loaded, two out stop from Chase d'Arnaud in a twice-delayed first inning, and d'Arnaud's bold base running later helped give the Pirates a 2-0 lead that they wouldn't relinquish. Cincinnati stranded seven base runners against Morton, who held the Reds scoreless through five innings and handed off to Tony Watson, Daniel McCutchen and Joel Hanrahan to finish off the shutout.

"It's a very resilient effort from Charlie," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "A well-pitched, gutsy effort by him backed up by another well-pitched, gutsy effort by Watson."

Milwaukee lost 3-0 to Arizona, giving the Pirates (50-44) a half-game lead over the Brewers and the Cardinals, who were off Monday, in the NL Central race. The Reds (47-49) fell to four games back in the division.

With lightning still flickering over the city skyline after a 55 minute weather delay, Morton beaned leadoff hitter Drew Stubbs. Zack Cozart put runners on the corners by singling to left field on a 3-2 sinker with Stubbs on the move. But Morton got Joey Votto to chop a sinker back to the mound and struck out Brandon Phillips swinging.

Morton fell behind Jay Bruce and then intentionally walked him, bringing Miguel Cairo to the plate with the bases loaded. Cairo fouled off five pitches before a bolt lit up the U.S. Steel Tower, thunder crashed and home plate umpire Tony Randazzo halted the game for a second time.

"That was really weird," Morton said. "I saw Miguel and he looked at me like... [Morton makes a deer-in-the-headlights expression]. Apparently it was pretty close, because they kicked us off the field."

One hour and 23 minutes later, Morton took the mound again to finish his duel with the Reds' third baseman. Cairo knocked a sinker back up the middle. d'Arnaud made a diving stop and flipped the ball toward Neil Walker, who scooped it on a bounce at second base for the force out.

"As timely a play we've had from Opening Day until now," Hurdle said. "If we don't get that out there, you don't know what's going to happen. To sit that long, prepare, get ready and lay out and make a flip like that...these guys, they come ready to play."

"I've done that two other times in my whole life - once in high school and once in college," d'Arnaud said of the flip play.

Reds starter Dontrelle Willis (0-1) rolled through three innings, holding the Pirates scoreless while throwing 36 pitches. But aggressive base running helped Pittsburgh push home two runs in the fourth frame.

d'Arnaud singled to center field to start the inning, and Walker (who exenteded his hitting streak to 12 games) followed by lining an 0-2 slider to right-center. d'Arnaud motored around second base and slid head-first into the third base bag to beat Bruce's throw, allowing Walker to pull into second. The rookie shortstop slammed into Cairo's knee on the play and was checked out by trainer Brad Henderson.

"You could see [d'Arnaud] as he was closing in on second -- his head went down, he made a sharp turn and he was off," Hurdle said.

"Just instincts, I guess," d'Arnaud said. "I thought [Bruce] was on his heels a bit, so I just mosied into third base."

An Andrew McCutchen ground out plated d'Arnaud, and a Matt Diaz sac fly brought Walker home to give the Pirates a 2-0 advantage. While d'Arnaud stayed in the game initially, he exited in the fifth inning with neck stiffness.

d'Arnaud's neck injury will be re-evaluated on Tuesday. "The trainer said I'll probably be more stiff tomorrow than I am right now," d'Arnaud said. "But we'll see. I don't think it's anything serious - probably a day-to-day thing."

Morton lasted five innings, giving up three hits, two walks (one intentional) and plunking two batters while striking out three.

"It was a touch-and-feel thing tonight," Hurdle said of Morton's trademark sinker. "After he got through the second inning...he got in a real nice groove. The curveball came into play, the four-seam fastball, and he threw a handful of split-changeups as well. It was a very effective mix, and it's tough to square up."

Hurdle came close to keeping Morton in the dugout as the second rain delay stretched to nearly an hour and a half.

"He was closing in on the deadline for me," Hurdle said. "The health of the pitcher is the most important thing. With what Charlie has been through and the success that he has had, you don't want to jeopardize him for another couple of innings. But he threw in the cage a couple of times and Ray [Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage] said, 'I don't know, the ball's coming out of his hand good. So if we can get out there sooner than later, I think he can still fire up a few innings for us.' And sure enough, he did."

"From a physical standpoint, it's not beneficial to shut it down for that long," Morton said. "But I looked at it as a really good situation mentally...after the two outs [in the first inning], coming in, sitting down and thinking about things for a while definitely helped."

The Reds nearly broke through in the eighth inning. Watson, who came on in relief of Morton and retired the first eight hitters that he faced, got into a jam after Brandon Phillips reached on catcher's interference and Bruce walked. Hurdle brought in Daniel McCutchen, who got Cairo to pop out to Mike McKenry in foul territory to end the threat.

"Sometimes you just go old school," Hurdle said of Watson's 2.2 innings of scoreless relief. "As long as he's pitching good, you leave him in. The way our bullpen was set up tonight, I had two guys I didn't want to use in Resop and Veras.

"[Watson's outing] set us up in a much better position for tomorrow," Hurdle continued. "To sit as long as he has since his last time out [Watson last pitched on July 9] and then come in and give us that type of effort, with that type of command to a very dangerous lineup was very, very impressive."

Hanrahan struck out Edgar Renteria swinging on a slider to start the ninth. Brandon Wood, who shifted from third base to shortstop when d'Arnaud left the game, made a fade away throw deep in the hole to gun out Ramon Hernandez for the second out. The Hammer then induced a ground ball from Chris Heisey to nail down the win and give the Pirates sole possession of first place.

Pirates starting pitcher Jeff Karstens was named the National League Player of the week for the period ending July 17. He needed just 83 pitches to vanquish the Houston Astros in a complete-game shutout at Minute Maid Park on July 15, surrendering five hits while striking out two and walking none. With the 4-0 shutout of the Astros, Karstens became the first Pirates starter to win five consecutive decisions since Ian Snell accomplished the feat from May 20-June 10, 2006.

RHP Mike Leake (8-4, 4.28 ERA) faces RHP James McDonald on Tuesday night.

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