PITTSBURGH -- The Reds were all pulling for ace Johnny Cueto to finish his regular season with 20 victories on Sunday. On the other hand, postseason preparation carried more weight.
That meant there would be no moving heaven and earth, and no giving Cueto one more inning. He was finished after the seventh and trailing, so he didn't benefit personally when the Reds scored two in the top of the ninth for a nice 4-3 win over the Pirates that took two of three in the series.
"That's the fine line that you walk," acting manager Chris Speier said. "There's the big picture and then there's the other picture. We were hoping to get both."
The best outcome was that the 96-63 Reds moved back into a tie with the Nationals for the best record in baseball and a potential top seed in the postseason. Because Washington owns the head-to-head tiebreaker, the Reds need to finish the season on Wednesday one game up. They head next to St. Louis, where they can get both the top seed and have a chance to knock the Cardinals out of the second Wild Card spot.
The win also allowed the Reds to clinch home-field advantage for the first round of the playoffs, assuring them of no less than a No. 2 seed.
Cueto had to settle, if you can call it that, with a 19-9 record and 2.78 ERA in 33 starts and 217 innings. His ERA for the season was the lowest from a Reds pitcher since Jose Rijo in 1993.
"I feel good. I feel normal," Cueto said through an interpreter. "God willing, I would have liked to get No. 20, but I have 19."
In Cueto's seven innings, only one of his three runs allowed was earned to go with six hits, one walk and six strikeouts. After an error by Joey Votto at first base to begin the third inning, Pittsburgh made it a 2-2 game on Garrett Jones' two-run homer to right field.
In the fifth inning, Cueto gave up Alex Presley's leadoff double down the right-field line. After a sacrifice, Andrew McCutchen rolled a single into left field that gave the Pirates the lead. Cincinnati, which scored its first two runs in the top of the third against Wandy Rodriguez, had 11 in a row retired and couldn't add on.
Cueto finished by retiring his last eight batters. His pitch count was only at 98 when Speier and pitching coach Bryan Price decided it was enough. Cueto is scheduled to pitch Game 1 of the National League Division Series on either Saturday or Sunday vs. a yet-to-be-determined opponent.
"I wanted to finish strong. I had a lot to keep going, but it was the manager's decision," Cueto said. "I only had  pitches and he decided to take me out, and that was it."
Before Cueto had a chance to take the mound, the game was officially delayed for four minutes by intensifying rains with one out in the top of the first. Umpiring crew chief Angel Hernandez waved everyone off the field, and the grounds crew began to drag tarps into position, but after conferring, the game continued as the sun broke through.
Sam LeCure notched the first out of the eighth, and Sean Marshall got the other two for the victory. The last Reds pitcher to have 19 wins, or 20, was Danny Jackson, with 23 in 1988.
"It was just a phenomenal comeback on our part," Speier said. "But I really, really wanted to give Johnny every opportunity to get 20. It was just one of those things that didn't work out."
What did work out well was a chance to battle-test some Reds who needed it in the top of the ninth, to winning results.
Leading off the ninth, pinch-hitter Xavier Paul pulled one fastball from closer Joel Hanrahan just outside of the right-field foul pole before he sent a 2-2 fastball into the right-field seats for a game-tying home run.
"I had the guy 0-2 and didn't put him away. You can't do that here," Hanrahan said.
It was Paul's first action since Thursday, and only the second pinch-hit homer of his career. During the postseason, Paul could be needed to provide potential game-changers off the bench.
"All year, I've been coming in late facing pretty good arms," Paul said. "But you don't face Joel Hanrahan every day. But in the playoffs, you will. I had a tough at-bat against him there. I got that adrenaline going, and it felt great."
Pinch-hitter Ryan Ludwick, who is trying to return from a groin injury before postseason play, hit a two-out double near the left-field line, and pinch-runner Denis Phipps scored the go-ahead run on Zack Cozart's double to left field. Cozart was supposed to be off, but he entered the game late after leg tightness forced Brandon Phillips out and Wilson Valdez to move to second base.
Cincinnati had to hang on for dear life as Aroldis Chapman walked his first two batters and gave up a single. Chapman caught a break after leadoff batter Jose Tabata was thrown out trying to go from first to third on a great play from Valdez after an errant pickoff throw. Chapman struck out his last two batters for his 37th save. It also doomed the 77-82 Pirates to their 20th consecutive losing season.
"It was a big win for us," Cozart said. "It seems like we lull through the game a lot and, all of a sudden at the end, we kind of turn it on. We showed it again today. We were a little upset because we wanted to get Johnny that 20th win. We wished we would have done it earlier, because he obviously pitched well enough to win."