Edinson Volquez spent four years watching Johnny Cueto evolve into one of the National League's best pitchers when the two were teammates in Cincinnati from 2008-11.
Three years later, Cueto is still at the top of his game.
At the moment, it looks as if Volquez might be back on the path to joining him.
While Cueto continued his mastery of the Pirates in Cincinnati's workmanlike 4-1 victory on Tuesday night, Volquez spent six innings matching Cueto zero for zero before faltering in the seventh to send Pittsburgh to its ninth loss in its past 12 games.
Still, for a pitcher signed to a one-year, $5 million flier in the offseason, Volquez (1-1) is one of the bright spots in his team's slow start. He gave up two runs and five hits in seven innings, walking one and striking out three while his ERA ticked up to 1.93.
Heady territory for a player who was one of the worst starters in baseball a year ago.
"He's changing speeds, getting ahead early, throwing first-pitch strikes," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Only three three-ball counts. He's definitely giving us a chance to win a game and keep us in games."
Just not enough to win them. Then again, the Pirates rarely do when they face Cueto, who tossed his second three-hit win over Pittsburgh in less than a week. He worked them over in a shutout victory last Thursday in Cincinnati and was just as dominant on a night when the Pirates only managed to get a handful of balls out of the infield.
Cueto (2-2) struck out four and walked three while running his career-long scoreless streak to 21 innings before giving up a home run to Andrew McCutchen with one out in the ninth. He improved to 15-4 in his career against the Pirates and became the first Cincinnati pitcher to toss consecutive complete games since Mat Latos did it in June 2012.
"He's not really a guy, when he's throwing strikes, you can wait out," Hurdle said of Cueto. "He's just been really, really tough. Not just on us, but we've seen him back-to-back times, probably in a very good place for him."
Brayan Pena and Zack Cozart had consecutive RBI hits off Volquez in the seventh to provide all the offense Cueto needed.
"I was just making good pitches the first couple, six innings," Volquez said. "I just made a couple of mistakes in the seventh. Two strikes, single, that's a bad pitch. That's the right pitch, but I can't finish them up."
The scene wasn't nearly as electric as Cueto's previous appearance at PNC Park, when the Cincinnati ace was pushed around early in a 6-2 loss in the National League wild-card game.
At one point Cueto dropped the ball while standing on the mound then immediately gave up a home run to Russell Martin as the standing room-only crowd lustily chanted the pitcher's last name. He lasted just 4 1-3 innings that night as the Pirates won their first postseason game in 21 years.
Six months later, the chants would be half-hearted at best.
"I had to laugh when I heard that," Cueto said. "They didn't forget. The fans have a job to do, too. It's their job to try to help their team out but it didn't bother me."
It certainly didn't look like it. Cueto never lost his grip on the ball, or the game.
Working quickly against a team he has dominated throughout his seven-year career, Cueto needed 117 pitches to get 27 outs and nearly became the first Cincinnati pitcher to post back-to-back shutouts since Hall of Famer Tom Seaver did it in 1977 before McCutchen's home run into the second row of seats in right field in the ninth.
Cueto upped his record to 9-2 at PNC Park, where the Pirates appear to be no closer to solving him now than they were when they first faced him in 2009.
"He's learned how to pitch, he's a great competitor and he doesn't give into anyone," Cincinnati manager Bryan Price said. For a guy who doesn't look like a world-class athlete, he sure plays the game like one."
NOTES: McCutchen finished 2 for 3 and is 5 for 6 so far in the series. ... The Pirates have yet to name a starter for Thursday's series finale. The team placed LHP Wandy Rodriguez on the 15-day disabled list on Monday with inflammation in his right knee. ... The series continues on Wednesday. Alfredo Simon (2-1, 0.86 ERA) starts for the Reds against Pittsburgh's Charlie Morton (0-2, 4.32).
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