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CHC@PIT: Liriano limits Cubs to two runs over six

After 153 games and almost six months, the race for first in the National League Central will be down to its final 10 days come Friday.

Fittingly, there's still plenty of baseball to be played between two of the teams -- the Reds and Pirates -- battling for the division crown.

Friday marks the beginning of a three-game set between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh at PNC Park. The Pirates avoided a four-game sweep against the Padres on Thursday with a 10-1 victory. The Reds were off on Thursday after winning three games in Houston.

While St. Louis leads the NL Central, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati -- in possession of the first and second NL Wild Card spots, respectively -- are right on the heels of the Cardinals. The Pirates are one game behind the Cards, and Cincinnati is two back.

Much of that could change, though, as the Reds and Pirates meet on Friday for the first of six games between the two clubs to close out the season.

"We are going to hold our destiny in our hands the next week and a half," said Reds starter Mat Latos, who will take the mound on Friday.

All three teams appear likely to be in the postseason, but it's far from decided who will head directly to the NL Division Series and who will play in the Wild Card Playoff. In the meantime, the Reds and Pirates will get a taste of what the playoffs are like in the final nine games of the season, beginning with Friday's showdown in Pittsburgh.

"It's going to be really exciting. I'm juiced," Reds third baseman Todd Frazier said. "You're going to feel a little fall atmosphere. Hopefully, it's a little nippy out there. I love it like that. It keeps me in tune. Hopefully, it will be a packed house, and a lot of craziness will happen and we come out with victories."

The Pirates will hope to do more with home-field advantage against the Reds than they did against the Padres this week, when they lost each of the first three games in a four-game set. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, PNC Park has not been kind to Cincinnati in 2013, as the Reds lost four of six road games against the Pirates to open the season series.

Reds: Latos gets nod in crucial series opener
When Dusty Baker set his rotation earlier in the week to accommodate the return of Johnny Cueto, the Reds manager did so in a way that made it possible for Latos to start the first game of this weekend's series.

Outside of a couple shaky starts, Latos has been excellent since opening August with consecutive scoreless outings. In his last eight starts, Latos is 4-3 with a 2.59 ERA. Each of the three losses came in games in which the Reds scored one or no runs, as Latos has put his team in a position to win most of his starts.

Baker has been especially pleased with Latos' improved ability to pitch deep into games. The 25-year-old right-hander has tossed a seven innings or more in six of his last eight starts, including a complete game against the Cardinals on Sept. 2.

When he takes the hill Friday, Latos will look to set a new career high with his 15th win of the season.

• Making his first career start on Wednesday, speedy Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton picked up his first three Major League hits. He also walked twice and became the first Red to steal four bases in a game since Felipe Lopez in 2006.

Pirates: Liriano hopes to figure out Reds
At PNC Park, Pirates starter Francisco Liriano has been at his best, going 8-1 with a 1.37 ERA in 10 starts this season. In three total starts against the Reds in 2013, though, Liriano has gone 0-3 and given up eight earned runs in 16 1/3 innings (4.41 ERA).

When he takes the mound at home against Cincinnati on Friday, something has to give.

Liriano enters Friday looking for his second win in his last three starts, and his third in the last five. The 29-year-old left-hander allowed seven runs in just three innings on Sept. 4 against the Brewers, but he followed with two six-inning starts in which he gave up one and two runs, respectively.

• With Russell Martin scuffling, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle gave his catcher a second straight day off on Thursday before the series against the Reds.

"I want him ready for Cincinnati," Hurdle said. "No doubt, the grind behind the plate is challenging him in the batter's box. I want to give him the appropriate rest he needs to get back in balance."

Worth noting
• The Pirates hold a 7-6 advantage in the season series against the Reds entering Friday.

• Reds and Pirates pitching has combined for 22 hit batters when squaring off this season, third most between any two teams in the Majors.

• The Reds have shut out the Pirates nine times at PNC Park since 2009, the most by any visiting team at any stadium in that stretch.

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