CINCINNATI — Johnny Cueto couldn't believe that he got a chance to bat.
A game-deciding hit? Even more astounding.
Cueto singled home the go-ahead run and got his 20th victory on Sunday, a 4-1 win over the Pirates 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.
It was a feel-good moment for a Reds team that had virtually none in the second half of a lost season.
"It wasn't easy to come by," manager Bryan Price said. "He had the numbers, but he lost a lot of (close) games. It is huge, and for him to get the hit that drives in the run makes it extra special."
Cueto (20-9) 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.
His unexpected hit made it possible.
Jason Bourgeois opened the eighth with a triple off Tony Watson (10-2). One out later, Price decided to let Cueto bat, figuring he had another inning in him in case the Reds didn't score. It surprised the pitcher, who was lobbying to stay in the game even though he had only two RBIs all season.
"I knew what was on the line, but this day was about one guy," Price said. "I talked to him and he said he wanted to hit. He was going to go one more inning. If anybody earned that opportunity, it was Johnny."
Cueto was surprised that Price went along with his suggestion to let him bat.
"I had 104 pitches," Cueto said. "We had a man on third. I don't understand why he trusted me, but at the same time, I'm happy that he believed in me."
Cueto worked the count full, then grounded a single up the middle against a drawn-in infield, pumping his fist when he reached first base. Kristopher Negron added a two-run homer off Justin Wilson.
Aroldis Chapman pitched the ninth for his 36th save in 38 chances.
Cincinnati played itself 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 Reds' fewest in a non-strike season.
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, the Pirates are headed back to PNC Park, where they'll host the Giants in the wild card game on Wednesday.
Pittsburgh also hosted the wild card game last year and beat the Reds before losing to the Cardinals.
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.
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.
Pirates: C Russell Martin missed a second consecutive game with a sore left hamstring. Backup C 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: CF 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. ... The Reds ended 44-37 at Great American Ball Park. ... Cueto finished with 242 strikeouts, tying Stephen Strasburg for the NL lead. He's the first Reds pitcher to lead the league in strikeouts since Aaron Harang in 2006. ... Cincinnati's paid attendance at Great American was 2,476,664, second to last year's attendance for the ballpark record.
Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: http://twitter.com/apjoekay
All content copyright ©2014 Daily Journal, a division of Home News Enterprises unless otherwise noted.