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McDonald leads Pirates to second consecutive shutout

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James McDonald pitched 6 1/3 shutout innings and the bullpen kept the Reds off the board the rest of the way as the Pirates shut out Cincinnati for a second consecutive night, winning 1-0 at PNC Park.

The Pirates stayed atop the NL Central standings on Tuesday night, shutting out the Reds 1-0 in front of a crowd of 26,058 at PNC Park. No bobbleheads, Skyblast concert or beach towels brought the masses out this time -- just quality baseball with playoff implications.

James McDonald breezed through six innings and then got a major boost from the bullpen, as Joe Beimel and Chris Resop squirmed out of a bases-loaded situation in the seventh. Resop retired the side in the eighth and handed off to Joel Hanrahan, who finished the game out to improve the Pirates' record to 51-44. Pittsburgh notched consecutive shutouts for the first time since April of 2009.

"To be able to open the series with back-to-back shutouts against that team over there -- it speaks volumes of what our pitchers have been able to do," Hurdle said. "They can hurt you in the lineup from top to bottom."

St. Louis lost 4-2 to the Mets on Tuesday, dropping the Cardinals 1.5 games behind the Bucs. The Brewers play the Diamondbacks on the West Coast later tonight. Cincinnati (47-50) is five games off the Pirates' pace.

McDonald (6-4) held the Reds scoreless through six innings. Reds starter Mike Leake (8-5) was also strong through six, allowing just two hits, but the Pirates clung to a one-run lead established in the first inning when Josh Harrison singled, Neil Walker hit a ground-rule double to extend his hitting streak to 13 games and Andrew McCutchen brought home a run with an RBI ground out.

In the seventh frame, however, McDonald got into a bases-loaded jam that required some strong-stomached relief work to escape.

Miguel Cairo worked McDonald for a leadoff walk. Chris Heisey advanced Cairo to second base by dropping a bunt down the third base line that Harrison barehanded and fired to first for an out. The next batter, Fred Lewis, chopped a curveball deep into the hole at shortstop and beat out Brandon Wood's throw with a head-first slide. With runners on the corners, McDonald walked Ryan Hanigan on four straight pitches.

Pinch-hitter Jay Bruce stepped toward the plate. Hurdle called Beimel to retire the All-Star slugger with more home runs over the past year than every NL hitter other than Mike Stanton and Albert Pujols.

Beimel quickly fell behind Bruce 2-and-0, but he evened the count with a pair of fouled-off fastballs. Beimel then snapped off a slider that caught the heart of the plate, but Bruce swung through the pitch for a strikeout.

"I wanted to go down and away, but the slider kind of backed up on me," Beimel said. "It just worked out where it was so bad that he couldn't do anything with it."

Resop came on to face Drew Stubbs and induced a ground ball to first base on a first-pitch fastball to stamp out the threat. Resop retired the side in the eighth inning, getting Zack Cozart to fly out, punching out Joey Votto on a 94 MPH fastball and coaxing another ground ball out of Brandon Phillips.

"I'm just trying to keep the ball down in the zone and get some contact early," Resop said. "We haven't score many runs, but we haven't flinched one bit."

Joel Hanrahan got two quick outs in the ninth inning, including a drive by Heisey that died at the right-center field warning track, but pinch-hitter Ramon Hernandez and Hanigan then hit back-to-back singles. Hanrahan sent the crowd home happy, though, as Bruce bounced a fastball to second base to end the game.

"They've been resilient all year," Hurdle said of his bullpen. "They feed off one another, and there's really no drawn-up game plan once the starter comes out.

"They know coming in that it's going to be match-ups, maybe who's running a little hotter than somebody else. The job of the bullpen for the last two months is to get the ball to Joel, and they all understand that. For Beimel to come in and get a very tough hitter out who's got better split numbers against left-handed pitching than right-handed pitching [Bruce has an .887 on-base plus slugging percentage versus lefties this year, compared to .817 against righties] and for Resop to follow that up with the four outs he got -- it was electirc. The fans responded, and our dugout responded as well."

"The bullpen has been the unsung hero for this team this year," McDonald said. "Those guys picked me up tonight and it was a good team win."

While the seventh inning got sloppy, McDonald enjoyed one of his most efficient outings of the season. He allowed four hits in 6.1 innings, striking out seven and walking three while throwing 87 pitches.

"I'm trying to be in more of a aggressive mode and keep hitters on their toes," McDonald said. "Attacking with strike one and strike two, and try to have counts in your advantage more often. I feel like I executed that pretty well tonight."

"I think James took a number of steps forward tonight," Hurdle said. "His pitch efficiency was very, very good. His fastball command improved, he had a good breaking ball to go with it and he threw some nice changeups as well. I'm very proud of his effort tonight.

"He seems to just be taking it to the hitters more," Hurdle said. "He's just trying to throw it through the catcher, just dot up the glove and not worry about anything other than the next pitch....there's not as much time spent on the grass. When a guy gets on, he's just getting the ball, getting the sign and firing away."

Hurdle praised the job that catcher Mike McKenry has done in familiarizing himself with a new pitching staff.

"It's been a seamless transition, Hurdle said. "I don't know if I've ever seen a guy come in who didn't know anybody and pick up on our staff as quickly as this young man has done. Tonight there were some big blocks on balls in the dirt as well....he has a very good feel now for everybody we've got that takes to the mound. And the feedback he's giving them in the dugout is professional. He challenges them, and he doesn't back away."

Can quality defense and pitching continue to bail out a lifeless lineup, though? The Pirates rank 13th in the National League in runs scored.

"We're winning ball games, and I think we need to keep things in perspective," Hurdle said. "We've got some guys who are still being challenged offensively and are still trying to find their way...sure we'd like to score more runs, but our guys are laying it all out on the field and doing everything we can do until another bat would show up or two or three guys get hot, that would really help."

Shortstop Chase d'Arnaud wasn't in the lineup on Tuesday and is considered day-to-day with a neck injury suffered while sliding into third base during Monday's game. Brandon Wood started in d'Arnaud's place, with Josh Harrison getting penciled in at third base.

RHP Johnny Cueto (5-3, 2.01) squares off against RHP Jeff Karstens (8-4, 2.34 ERA) at 12:35 p.m. on Wednesday. Don't expect many extended innings in this contest. Cueto and reigning NL Player of the Week Karstens both rank in the top 10 among Senior Circuit starting pitchers in fewest pitches thrown per inning. Cueto (14.7 pitches per inning) places seventh, while Karstens (13.8) is the most economical starter in the NL.

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