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Must C Clips: Mercer legs out inside-the-park homer

CINCINNATI -- Brandon Cumpton threw an early hat into the ring for the competition for the Pirates' 2014 rotation by throwing five shutout innings Sunday as the Bucs lowered the regular-season curtain with a 4-2 victory over the Reds.

The Bucs thus finished at 94-68, matching their season-peak of 26 games over .500 and showing an improvement of 15 games over last year's final record of 79-83.

The Pirates added a couple of homers in the "Fall Training" win, with both managers liberally emptying their crowded benches a day after Pittsburgh's win had confirmed PNC Park as the location of Tuesday's Wild Card Game between the teams.

Neither long ball came from Pedro Alvarez, who had been the only everyday player in the Pirates' lineup to give him a chance at a 37th homer to break his tie with Paul Goldschmidt for the National League lead.

Alvarez's quest for the crown turned out to be a dud. In three plate appearances, the only time he got to swing the bat was in the fifth -- and he popped out to shortstop. Alvarez had walked in the first and was hit by a pitch in the third.

Jordy Mercer sprinted to an inside-the-park homer in the second after right fielder Jay Bruce fanned on an attempted diving catch of his sinking liner -- starting Mercer toward a three-hit day on which he fell a double short of the cycle -- and Garrett Jones conventionally found the right-center seats in the eighth, for his 100th home run with the Bucs.

A sweep in this season-ending series propels the Pirates into the playoffs amid one of their hottest stretches of the year, off a 5-1 road trip.

"One of our goals was to finish stronger than we started," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.

Check: The Pirates finished with a mirror-image of their getaway, 1-5 in the season's first six games.

The Reds slide into the postseason from the opposite direction, with five consecutive losses.

"You've got to block it out. It's a situation where it's a new season," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "What you did previously, it doesn't matter. What you didn't do previously doesn't matter. Now you start the season all over."

True, and the Pirates also have to face up to a strange, extraordinary challenge: Needing to win one more over the Reds, in the Wild Card play-in game, lest the weekend's work be wiped out (along with the season's 11-8 edge over Cincinnati).

And the Pirates have not defeated the Reds in four straight games since July 11-14, 1991.

"We've played well," said Hurdle, assessing his club's 7-3 sprint since losing the first three of a four-game series with San Diego. "After that, we had to rally up and get some things back in order, and I think we've done that across the board. We've put together a pretty good package here, finishing up."

Cumpton continued leaving good impressions. In his first start, and only second appearance, since being added to the expanded September roster, Cumpton blanked the Reds for five innings on two hits. And it really was the Reds, with Baker, unlike his Pittsburgh counterpart, using most of his regular lineup.

"He's pitched very well throughout our system, all the way up," Hurdle said of the 24-year-old, who began the year with Double-A Altoona. "The fastball command to both sides of the plate ... he was aggressive inside ... a very good mix of pitches. He's a pitch-to-contact guy, and he went after them."

Cumpton will be able to base his campaign for a spot in the Bucs' 2014 rotation on taking a streak of 15 scoreless innings into Spring Training. That includes his seven-inning shutout start against the Cardinals in the nightcap of the July 30 doubleheader, a three-inning shutout stint against the Reds on Sept. 22, and Sunday's effort.

A 2.05 ERA for Cumpton's big league baptismal is made even more impressive by the fact five of his six appearances have been against postseason teams: A total of three against Cincinnati, and one each against the Dodgers and the Cardinals.

"I tried to learn from each outing," Cumpton said. "Take the positive and stick it in the memory bank, and also note what I struggled with and continue to work on those things and hopefully keep getting better."

Even as he emerged from the shadows with a notable statement, however, Cumpton's eyes were on the prize waiting on the other side of the Ohio River.

"This was a lot of fun, and a big win for us," Cumpton smiled. "But we still got an even bigger one, and hopefully this will let us carry some momentum back home."

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