Sure, Cincinnati has won 11 of 15 to grab the division lead over scuffling St. Louis. But the Pirates have taken seven of nine to pull into a second-place tie with the Cardinals, three behind the Reds, before St. Louis' Sunday night game against the Mets.
Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are the only two Major League teams that have not lost more than two straight games since April 14.
The clubs will meet for the third time this season, but the first at Great American Ball Park, when they open a three-game series on Tuesday. Homer Bailey will take the mound for the Reds, against the Pirates' A.J. Burnett.
Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh 10 of 16 times on the way to a division title in 2010, but the Pirates have held their own since. They won 10 of 15 in the series last year, making them the only NL Central team to top .500 against the Reds. The teams have split six games in Pittsburgh this year.
"They got good pitching," Reds manager Dusty Baker said of the Pirates, who are second in the Majors in team ERA. "They played us tough last year.
"That ballpark they play in helps negate your long ball, which me and my team depend on. You hit the ball to left-center and right-center in that ballpark, those are outs, especially when you got [center fielder Andrew McCutchen] and [left and right fielder Jose Tabata] running balls down out there. So hopefully it'll be different in our ballpark."
Bailey will hope nothing is different from the last time he faced the Pirates. On Tuesday, he held Pittsburgh to one run on four hits in a complete-game victory.
"We were ahead in a lot of counts," Bailey said. "I thought [catcher Devin Mesoraco] did an excellent job back there. We were pretty much on the same page all night. We threw a lot of strikes, put the ball in play and our defense made a lot of great plays. It's what it takes to go nine innings."
The righty is 6-0 in eight career starts against Pittsburgh, and his 1.79 ERA is his lowest against any team he has faced at least five times.
Burnett, who's getting the ball after a bit of rotation juggling by Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle, last pitched last Wednesday, beating the Reds after unfurling seven innings of two-hit ball and allowing only an unearned run. He improved his record to 4-2 and lowered his season ERA to 3.60.
"He threw a lot of ground balls," said Reds manager Dusty Baker. "You saw how many balls we topped tonight. He must have been sinking and moving to top that many balls against us. He threw a really good game against us."
Pirates: Rest and regroup
Hurdle benched third baseman Pedro Alvarez on Sunday against the Brewers and will not necessarily put him back in the lineup on Tuesday, following the team's off day.
In 24 games since being moved up to the No. 4 spot in the lineup on May 5, Alvarez is hitting .140 with nine RBIs, and Hurdle might decide he needs more than one game off to get on track.
"I haven't figured that one out yet," Hurdle said. "I'm taking these cases one by one, and he's next on my list of people to get right, to help regroup. We've talked about when he was hitting fifth and seventh, and he doesn't think there's been much difference. Yes, they have pitched him a little differently, as any team would a guy that can shrink the ballpark."
Burnett is 3-3 with a 4.91 ERA in his career against Cincinnati.
Reds: Moving straight ahead
Cincinnati went 17-11 in May with a 3.29 team ERA that was the club's lowest for that month since 1997 and its lowest for any month since July 2010. The Reds have their biggest division lead since winning the NL Central by five games two years ago.
But that's in the past. Baker, asked about the impending Pirates series, said he approaches the season like a wide receiver in football.
"You don't look behind you. You look straight at the finish line," Baker said before Sunday's loss to the Astros. "The ones that can't run, they start zigzagging and going to the corner of the end zone. You gotta go straight."
Bailey has notched a quality start in eight of his 10 outings. In his last four games, he is 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA and a 21-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
The Reds, who are 15-9 at home, are starting a nine-game stand at Great American Ball Park. Cincinnati has hit 35 of its 58 home runs at home, where its slugging percentage is about 60 points higher.
Thanks in large part to McCutchen, the Pirates' No. 3 hitters are batting .330 (66-200). No other lineup spot is above .230.