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Pirates-Reds Preview

Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez, right, tries to handle the throw from the outfield as Philadelphia Phillies' Odubel Herrera scores on a single by Carlos Ruiz during the second inning of an exhibition baseball game, Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Phi Photo:

Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez, right, tries to handle the throw from the outfield as Philadelphia Phillies' Odubel Herrera scores on a single by Carlos Ruiz during the second inning of an exhibition baseball game, Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Phi

J.A. Happ has gotten plenty of opportunities for a fresh start while pitching for five teams in as many years, but being thrown into the middle of a playoff race has seemed to bring out his best.

He'll look to win his fifth straight outing for the Pittsburgh Pirates when he faces the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday night at Great American Ball Park.

Happ (4-1, 1.57 ERA) has experienced mild success since coming up with Philadelphia in 2007 and has battled multiple injuries while also pitching for Houston, Toronto and Seattle after the Phillies dealt him in 2010.

The left-hander hasn't posted an ERA below 4.22 since that year and went 4-6 with a 4.64 ERA with the Mariners this season before being sent to the Pirates (82-55) at the trade deadline.

Happ gave up four runs in a loss to the Chicago Cubs in his Pittsburgh debut Aug. 4, but he's posted a 0.60 ERA in five outings since. His most impressive performance came Friday against MLB-best St. Louis, when he allowed three hits and struck out eight in seven scoreless innings of a 9-3 win.

''Sometimes a change of scenery can give a guy a shot in the arm,'' manager Clint Hurdle said. ''You don't want to be a weak link and you re-acquire your focus knowing you're being counted on. He's showed up well.''

Happ had a rough outing the last time he pitched in Cincinnati on June 21, 2014, allowing eight runs and walking four in four innings while with Toronto.

Brandon Phillips is 7 for 14 with three homers and two doubles off Happ, and Joey Votto is 7 for 16 with three doubles.

Phillips had two hits Tuesday, but Andrew McCutchen hit a three-run homer, Jung Ho Kang had a solo shot and Starling Marte went 3 for 5 as the Pirates won 7-3.

Pittsburgh, which had lost six of eight, maintained its two-game lead over the Cubs for the NL's first wild card and pulled within 4 1/2 of the Cardinals in the Central.

''It is tangible evidence of us being in a better place,'' Hurdle said after the Pirates clinched a third straight winning season. ''We had 20 consecutive losing seasons as an organization, and I was here for two of them. We talked about creating a new sense and direction of history. That's part of it.''

The last-place Reds (57-80) dropped to 10-5 against the Pirates this season and will look to bounce back behind rookie Keyvius Sampson (2-3, 6.68), who is in the midst of a major slump.

Sampson made his major league debut in relief against Pittsburgh on July 30, then made his first career start Aug. 2 against the Pirates and allowed three runs in five innings of a 3-0 loss.

The right-hander hasn't gotten past the fourth in any of his last four outings, though, going 0-2 with a 10.93 ERA while walking nine in 14 innings.

''It's just been a struggle for him to get ahead and stay ahead in the count,'' manager Bryan Price said. ''That makes a big difference. When he was going good, he was clustering pitches in the zone. Now he's spraying them all around. That usually doesn't lead to success.''

Sampson has one walk and eight strikeouts in six innings against the Pirates and has fanned Pedro Alvarez both times he's faced him.

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