PITTSBURGH — Joe Beimel let the pitch go and thought "uh-oh."
The second the slider that didn't really slide left his hand with the bases loaded Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Pirates reliever waited for Cincinnati's Jay Bruce to find a way to come through.
Only Bruce didn't. The slugger flailed miserably while striking out in the seventh inning as Pittsburgh's stellar bullpen preserved a 1-0 victory that kept the Pirates alone in first in the NL Central.
"If I would have made the pitch I wanted he would have fouled it off or blooped it over somebody's head or something," Beimel said. "It just worked out where it was so bad he couldn't do anything with it."
Bruce wasn't alone Tuesday night. The Reds were held scoreless for the second straight night as Pittsburgh posted consecutive shutouts for the first time since April 2009.
James McDonald, Beimel, Chris Resop and Joel Hanrahan combined on a six-hitter for the Pirates, who made sure their stunning rise to the top of the standings wasn't a one-day cameo.
McDonald (6-4) won for the first time in five starts, allowing four hits, striking out seven and walking three in 6 1/3 efficient innings before letting the relievers go to work.
"The bullpen has been the unsung hero for this team this year," McDonald said. "They've come in in a lot of big situations and got the job done. Those guys picked me up tonight."
Mike Leake (8-5) yielded one run in six innings but couldn't stop the Reds (47-50) from dropping three games below .500 for the first time this season. They trail Pittsburgh by five games.
"It's frustrating because you know these are important games for us and we're playing good baseball, pitching well, keeping ourselves in games defensively," Cincinnati catcher Ryan Hanigan said. "We just need to keep working for those hits."
Pittsburgh's offense wasn't much better, managing just four hits, but the Pirates found a way to scratch out a run in the first while improving to 7-1 this season against the defending division champions.
"I don't know if we're pressing or not, we're just not getting it done, you know?" Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker said. "We're missing pitches, and that's what happens."
The Pirates recorded two of their four hits in the first inning. Josh Harrison singled with one out, Neil Walker doubled to left and Harrison scored on Andrew McCutchen's groundout.
That one run was enough for McDonald, who earned his first win since beating Houston on June 16. The 26-year-old right-hander has steadily improved since a rough April and for a night found a way to avoid the control problems that have prevented him from working deep into games.
McDonald got through the first six innings in a tidy 71 pitches, then handed it over to the bullpen when Cincinnati put together its best threat of the night.
"I was pitching to contact more this game, going along smoothly," McDonald said.
At least until things got bumpy in the seventh.
Miguel Cairo led off with a walk and moved to second on a sacrifice by Chris Heisey. Fred Lewis followed with a grounder to shortstop and beat the throw with a headfirst slide, putting runners on the corners. Hanigan then walked on four pitches to chase McDonald.
Beimel, who was lit up for three hits while recording two outs on Sunday, struck out Bruce with that unconventional slider before giving way to Resop.
The journeyman reliever has become a revelation this season and a specialist at what manager Clint Hurdle calls "high leverage" situations.
Resop has inherited 45 baserunners this season, tops in the majors. He wasted little time getting Drew Stubbs to hit a slow dribbler to first to help the Pirates escape. He then walked off the field to a standing ovation from a sizable PNC Park crowd of 26,058 that is quickly warming to Pittsburgh's surprising rise to contention.
"It was electric," Hurdle said.
Resop followed with a perfect eighth inning before Hanrahan, appearing in his third straight game, allowed a pair of singles before getting Bruce to ground out to second to notch his 28th save.
"It's been awesome to watch and be a part of," Resop said.
While the Pirates have surged, the Reds have sagged. Cincinnati hasn't won consecutive games in over a month while slowly sliding to the rear of the four-team Central race.
When the Reds hit, they don't pitch that well, and on a night when Leake was as sharp as he's been all season, Cincinnati's bats went silent.
The Reds have left 18 men on base in the first two games of the three-game series.
"We had some runners on base early in the game and we just couldn't get that hit," Baker said. "This is frustrating when you're not scoring runs."