With two months of baseball in the books, the Reds open June on Saturday against the Pirates at PNC Park, marking the beginning of what should prove to be a demanding month.
Starting with Saturday's matchup, 20 of Cincinnati's next 27 games come against teams with winning records. Nine of those games will be against current division leaders, (Cardinals, D-backs and Rangers), and more than half (14) of the games will be on the road.
Second baseman Brandon Phillips said the Reds are prepared to embrace the challenge.
"This is about us doing our job," Phillips said. "We're playing some great teams, but I feel like that when you play against great teams, that's when you step up. That's going to be motivation for us. We're not playing teams under .500."
Second place in the National League Central will be on the line Saturday, when the Reds' Mike Leake and Pirates' Francisco Liriano square off. Both teams come in at 34-21 after Cincinnati won the series opener. Saturday's winner also will be able to lay claim to at least a share of the second-best record in baseball.
Pittsburgh has been in the division race in each of the last two seasons, but faltered when it mattered. This weekend's series against the Reds, though, is another opportunity for Clint Hurdle's club to prove 2013 edition is different than years past.
"The challenge that we had faced the last couple years is that we let feelings become facts," Hurdle said. "We tried not to, but toward the end of the season it did. And at this particular point in time, I think there's been growth along those lines of guys who have been here for the third year now."
Reds: Leake on a roll
When Leake is on the hill, the Reds are most likely going to have a decent shot to win. Leake has given up more than three runs just three times in 10 starts, and the most he's surrendered in one outing is five.
The 25-year-old right-hander has been especially effective in his eight outings since giving up those five runs to the Pirates, coincidentally, on April 12. He's 4-2 in those starts, including three scoreless outings, with a 2.13 ERA.
Leake will seek redemption for his worst appearance of the season on Saturday when he sees Pittsburgh for the second time. He'll do so coming off three outings in which he's give up a combined one run.
"He's been lights-out lately," teammate Zack Cozart said of Leake. "He's pounding the zone, and I think when you do that, you keep your defense in the game and you get ahead of guys. And when you get ahead of guys, it's proven that you're successful, and I think that's what he's doing."
• Reds left fielder Chris Heisey has been on the disabled list since April 29 with a strained right hamstring, but he expects to start running the bases and shag fly balls without restrictions "in the next day or two."
"If I can do that a couple days in a row and not have soreness, then maybe they'll think about sending me on a rehab assignment," Heisey said.
Pirates: Liriano looks to bounce back
After winning his first three starts of the season, Liriano dropped his most recent decision to the Tigers on Monday. When he takes the hill against the Reds on Saturday, he'll hope to perform more like the pitcher who surrendered just two runs in his first three appearances of 2013 (18 innings).
Liriano didn't pitch in the Majors until May 11 this season after breaking his non-throwing arm in the in offseason. The 29-year-old left-hander, who was signed by the Pirates in February, owns a 2.35 ERA, which jumped up from 1.00 following the loss in Detroit. He has yet to lose at PNC Park this season, giving up one run in 12 2/3 inning of action.
• Pirates left-handers enter Saturday at 8-2 in 15 starts at PNC Park this season.
• The Reds are an even 14-14 on the road this season, despite starting the season 1-8 away from Great American Ball Park.
• Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have played four times this season, and each team has scored a total of 19 runs.
Jeremy Warnemuende is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.