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PIT@SD: Liriano one-hits Padres over five frames

As the first half comes to a close, four National League Central teams, separated by just 2 1/2 games, seem to have a legitimate chance at the division title.

Two of those clubs, the Reds and Pirates, will conclude a three-game series Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati after splitting the first two meetings.

Reds manager Bryan Price sees no reason why the end of the season won't look similar to the midway point -- a four-team race.

"I don't think there's any reason to think that it would be any different," he said. "The main reason is that all four of the teams that are knocking each other around are teams that have very good starting pitching. I can't predict what's going to happen, but I'd say as long as you have healthy starting pitching of the caliber that the four teams that are in the race right now in our division have, that you could anticipate a long run for everybody."

Pittsburgh hopes that quality starting pitching will come in the form of left-hander Francisco Liriano on Sunday. Liriano will be making his first start since June 10 after recovering from a strained left oblique.

But the ace of last season's Pirates staff wasn't his usual self before the injury. Dating back to 2013, Liriano has just one win in his past 17 starts.

Only once in his last nine starts has Liriano gone longer than five innings, but Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle is optimistic that's about to change.

"Yeah, excited for him. He's excited," Hurdle said. "I haven't seen such a big a smile on his face in quite some time. More about the fact he actually feels really healthy."

Liriano threw six shutout innings for Triple-A Indianapolis on Monday.

"Rehab start is a rehab start, but it's always nice to pitch and get some outs and throw strikes," Hurdle said. "Overall, the way his body feels, the way the side feels, he's looking forward to competing again."

The first assignment back for Liriano is a tough one -- he'll oppose one of the best pitchers in the Majors in Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto. Cueto leads both leagues in opponents' batting average (.180) and has turned in six straight quality starts.

Pirates: Polanco refreshes approach
Amid a weeklong slump, rookie outfielder Gregory Polanco was in his usual slot at the top of the batting order Saturday night. He went 1-for-5 with an RBI and a walk.

Polanco has just four hits in his last 29 at-bats.

"He's not swinging the bat very well right now," Hurdle said. "The league is punching back. And he had it all figured out in the first 10 days, according to everything I read. Amazing, isn't it?

"We're trying to get him back to a solid foundation. Stand up tall at the plate, not a big swing, play aggressive pepper -- hit the ball hard where it's pitched. He got away from all that a bit recently."

Reds: Cueto likely out for All-Star Game
Cueto's last start of the first half will certainly be an important one, but as a result, he isn't expected to pitch in Tuesday's All-Star Game.

The right-hander, who ranks among the Majors' best in strikeouts (134) and ERA (2.03), is subject to a clause in the 2012 Collective Bargaining Agreement that states, "Any starting pitcher elected or selected to the All-Star team who makes a start on the Sunday immediately preceding the All-Star Game shall have the option to participate or not participate in the All-Star Game."

Cueto said he'd like to still pitch in the game, but Price called it unlikely.

Worth noting
• The Reds have a chance to claim their 10th series victory against an NL Central opponent Sunday. Cincinnati is 9-3-1 in series against division rivals, losing only to the Cardinals.

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