Pirates Vs. Reds: Bucs Face Most Important Series Of Season So Far

CINCINNATI, OH - JUNE 7: Joey Votto #19 of the Cincinnati Reds gets tagged out on a play at home plate by Michael McKenry #55 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first inning at Great American Ball Park on June 7, 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The Pirates won't have to face Joey Votto or Johnny Cueto, but it still will be a very tough series against a first-place Reds team that seemingly can't lose.

Friday night in Cincinnati, the second-place Pirates play their biggest series of the year so far, a series that could pull them almost even with the first-place Reds, or drop them far behind.

The Pirates (60-44) have gone 12-7 since the All-Star break, playing a relatively easy schedule, but they've lost ground against the Reds (64-41), who have been almost unbeatable despite the absence of star first baseman Joey Votto. The Reds' 17-3 record since the break includes a 10-game winning streak and sweeps of the Cardinals, Brewers, Astros and Rockies.

That's the bad news. The good news is that they'll continue to be without Votto (knee) for their series against the Bucs, and it's not yet clear whether Brandon Phillips (calf) will play, either.

The Pirates have reshuffled their rotation after an off day on Thursday, moving A.J. Burnett, who pitched a one-hitter against the Cubs earlier this week, up to Sunday, getting Erik Bedard a little more rest and putting the team's best three starters on the field against the division leaders. Wandy Rodriguez will start against Mat Latos on Friday (7:10), James McDonald will take the mound against Mike Leake on Saturday (also 7:10), and on Sunday (1:10), it's Burnett and Homer Bailey. The Bucs will miss Reds ace Johnny Cueto.

For more on the Pirates, check out Bucs Dugout. For more on the Reds, there's Red Reporter.

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