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CIN@MIL: Willis solid, fans four in Reds' debut

It's been an unexpectedly successful season for the upstart Pirates. Now, against some of the toughest teams in the National League, skipper Clint Hurdle will see what his team is really made of.

A daunting stretch begins Monday, when the Pirates meet Dontrelle Willis and the Reds for the first of a three-game set at PNC Park, where the beleaguered hurler is 1-3 with a 5.56 ERA in his career.

Willis, who is on his third team since 2010, is still searching for his first victory with Cincinnati. He deserved better in his Reds debut on the Sunday before the All-Star Break -- also his first big league start in more than a year -- allowing just two earned runs in six frames before falling victim to a blown save in a 4-3 loss to the Brewers.

"He's a great teammate," Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "He's one of my friends. Just hearing him on the bench during the game, he's keeping everybody into the game. He gives good motivation to the team. We really needed somebody like that to come here, other than myself."

The Pirates have won five of the six meetings between the two clubs this season and moved to 49-44 after a 7-5 win against the Astros on Sunday. They are one of baseball's biggest surprises this season and are a half-game out of first place in the National League Central. But a stretch of 13 games against the Reds, Cardinals, Braves and Phillies -- who are a combined 212-167 -- should be an excellent barometer. The Pirates are 23-18 against teams with winning records this year.

"As we've bought into the process of how we're going to work and go about our business, incorporating hard work and fun and focus, the one day at a time thing really just makes sense," Hurdle said.

The Reds haven't won back-to-back games since a three-game sweep of the Dodgers from June 13-15. On the other hand, the Pirates have not lost successive ballgames since dropping four straight from June 17-20.

But, when it comes to games against NL Central rivals, there's nobody better than the Reds. Cincinnati owns a division-leading 28 wins against the NL Central this year.

But this series, Reds manager Dusty Baker knows, will certainly be a challenge.

"They're playing good," Baker said. "They've surprised some people. They're pretty good because they've got good pitching. When you've got good pitching, you've got a chance."

Reds: Rookie streaking
Shortstop Zack Cozart, who was promoted from Triple-A Louisville on July 7, has begun his big-league career with a six-game hitting streak. It's the longest such streak by a Reds player to begin his Major League career since Adam Dunn hit safely in his first seven in 2001.

In those six games, Cozart is batting .400 (10-for-25) with five runs and two RBI.

Pirates: Morton takes hill
Charlie Morton will have the opportunity to earn his first win since June 15 when he goes to work Monday for the Pirates in the series opener.

The right-hander (7-5, 3.80 ERA) endured a difficult month of June that prompted Hurdle to skip one of Morton's starts at the end of the month. The hurler went through a stretch from May 7-June 4 in which he did not allow more than two earned runs in an outing, but has since allowed three or more in four of his past five appearances.

Morton has also struggled at home this year, going 2-4 with a 4.70 ERA in eight starts, compared to 5-1 with a 3.00 ERA in eight starts on the road.

Worth noting
• With a first-inning single on Sunday, Pittsburgh's Neil Walker extended his hitting streak to 11 games. It is the longest streak of the season for a Pirates hitter.

• The three games in Pittsburgh are the Reds' only contests away from home in a span of 16 since the All-Star Break.

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