CINCINNATI — After a day of too much Johnny Cueto, the Pittsburgh Pirates finally knew where they were going.
Home. For the playoffs.
Cueto singled in the go-ahead run and got his 20th victory on Sunday, a 4-1 win that gave the NL Central title to the St. Louis Cardinals and forced Pittsburgh to settle for a wild card for the second straight season.
A bit sad, but not bad at all.
"It's disappointing," catcher Chris Stewart said. "At the same time, we can't really hang our heads. We faced a great pitcher. Yes, we would have liked to win the division, but we're still in the playoffs and still have a chance to win the World Series."
Pittsburgh needed to beat the Reds and have the Cardinals lose later in the day at Arizona to pull even for first place and set up a one-game tiebreaker Monday. Instead, Cueto (20-9) settled the division race with eight impressive innings and an up-the-middle single.
When they saw that they'd clinched, the Cardinals celebrated in the dugout and made wholesale changes to their starting lineup, including resting scheduled starter Adam Wainwright for the playoffs.
The Pirates will head home to play the Giants at PNC Park on Wednesday, with the winner facing the Nationals in the division series. Pittsburgh also hosted the wild-card game last year and beat the Reds before losing to the Cardinals, so the Pirates know what to expect.
"I expect it to be like last year: So loud you can't hear the ball off the bat," said Josh Harrison, who came up short in his run at the NL batting title.
Manager Clint Hurdle indicated Edinson Volquez likely will start the playoff game, although he declined to make it official. Volquez has allowed only four earned runs and 16 hits in his last five starts at PNC Park spanning 34 2-3 innings.
"To pitch that game would be something really big for me," said Volquez, who is 13-7 overall.
Jason Bourgeois opened the eighth with a triple off Tony Watson (10-2). One out later, Cueto came to bat, worked the count full and singled through a drawn-in infield for a 2-1 lead, pumping his fist as he reached first base.
"It's a funny game," Harrison said. "There's nothing you can say. Cueto found a hole."
Kristopher Negron added a two-run homer off Justin Wilson.
Cueto gave up six hits in eight innings, including Neil Walker's homer, as he became the first Reds pitcher to win 20 games since Danny Jackson in 1988. He's the first Reds right-hander to win 20 since 1965, when Sammy Ellis and Jim Maloney did it.
Aroldis Chapman pitched the ninth for his 36th save in 38 chances.
The Pirates went all-out to try to win the game, starting Gerrit Cole — their best September pitcher — instead of saving him for the playoffs. Cole did his part, giving up one run and six hits in seven innings and matching his career high with 12 strikeouts.
After talking with team leaders, Hurdle decided to stay with his starting pitching alignment for the playoffs. That meant stick with Cole, who had won his last four starts.
The right-hander had a tough first inning, giving up back-to-back singles by Negron and Brandon Phillips. Todd Frazier's groundout made it 1-0. Cole went on a streak of retiring 19 of 20 batters, extending his run of impressive September pitching. Cole is 8-1 in 11 career starts during the month.
When the game ended, Hurdle shook each player's hand in the dugout and said, "Like the fight!"
Asked whether the Pirates are better prepared for the playoffs the second time around, Hurdle said, "I don't know. We're going to find out. But I like our team. I like our fight. I like our grit."
Harrison went 0 for 4, ending his career-high 15-game hitting streak and ending his chances for the NL batting title. He started the day at .318, a point behind Justin Morneau, but slipped to .315. He wasn't disappointed at finishing second.
"None of that means anything to me," Harrison said.
The Reds played themselves out of contention by going 25-42 after the All-Star break, matching the club record for second-half futility. The 1933 team also had 25 wins after the All-Star game, the fewest in a non-strike season.
Pirates: Catcher Russell Martin missed a second consecutive game with a sore left hamstring. Backup catcher Chris Stewart left after Cueto's bat hit his glove hand as he followed through on his single in the eighth. X-rays on the wrist were negative.
Reds: Center fielder Billy Hamilton sat out a fourth straight game with concussion symptoms. He set a club rookie record with 56 stolen bases.
Pirates: Pittsburgh is 51-30 at PNC Park, tied with the Cardinals for best home record in the NL.
Hits king Pete Rose got a standing ovation when he was shown on the videoboard during the seventh inning. Rose attends several games a year in his hometown. ... Starling Marte singled off Chapman in the ninth, extending his hitting streak to a career-high 13 games.
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