A late comeback guaranteed a pretty good consolation prize: home-field advantage for his team's first playoff series.
Pinch-hitter Xavier Paul led off the ninth with a tying home run and Zack Cozart had a go-head double for the Reds, who clinched at least the NL's No. 2 seed with a 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday.
"It was a big win for us because we want to get home-field advantage," Cozart said. "It seems like we kind of lull through games a lot then turn it on at the end. That's how it was today."
The Reds pulled into a tie with Washington for best record in the NL at 96-63 after the Nationals lost to St. Louis.
Cueto pitched effectively but failed in his attempt to become the Reds' first 20-game winner since Danny Jackson in 1988. Cueto allowed three runs -- one earned -- on six hits in seven innings.
"I really, really want to give Johnny every opportunity to get 20 wins, but it was just one of those things that didn't work out," Reds interim manager Chris Speier said. "There is the big picture and then there's the other picture. We were hoping to get both but the big picture was to keep his pitch count down and have him ready for the postseason."
The presumed starter for Game 1 of the NL division series, Cueto was pulled after throwing 98 pitches.
"I could have kept going, but it was the manager's decision and he decided to take me out," Cueto said. "I felt good. God willing, I would have liked to have had 20 but I got 19 and that's a pretty good number, too."
Pittsburgh ensured it'd finish with a record 20th straight losing season with the defeat, extending its major North American professional sports record.
"Everyone's pretty ticked off about it," Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones said.
The Pirates were 16 games over .500 on Aug. 6 but have lost 18 of 23 to fall to 77-82.
"I'm disappointed," second-year manager Clint Hurdle said. "One of my goals when I got here was to re-bond this city with this baseball team and to be a group of men who do that collectively. So it's definitely disappointing -- especially when we were able to get to a certain point of the year where we were talking playoffs... and ultimately it all got away from us."
Paul and Ryan Ludwick were on a last season's Pittsburgh team that was in first place on July 25 but finished the season on a 19-43 slide.
Paul entered the game with four career home runs over parts of four seasons, and Ludwick had only one at bat in the previous 10 days because of left groin soreness. He was scratched from the lineup due to wet field conditions on a day in which it rained throughout the first four innings.
Paul homered to lead off the ninth. With two outs, Ludwick doubled. Pinch-runner Denis Phipps scored on Cozart's hit.
Pittsburgh still had its chance. Aroldis Chapman walked Jose Tabata to lead off the bottom of the ninth, but Tabata was thrown out at third trying to advance after Chapman's throwing error on a pickoff attempt.
Joey Votto went 2 for 4 with an RBI double for the Reds, who have won four of six to improve to 96-63.
Speier said that Dusty Baker would join the team later Sunday in St. Louis and resume his managerial duties Monday in the series against the Cardinals. Baker has missed 11 games after having a mini-stroke.
Wandy Rodriguez allowed two runs in six innings for the Pirates, who beat the Reds on Saturday but could not win consecutive games for the first time since Sept. 4-5.
Rodriguez finished his season 5-4 with a 3.72 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) with Pittsburgh since being acquired in a July 24 trade with Houston.
That also was the previous time the Pirates won a series, but things were looking good for fans at PNC Park on Fan Appreciation Day with Hanrahan taking the mound having converted his previous 16 save opportunities. Hanrahan (5-2) had allowed four earned runs in 33 prior appearances at home this season.
"I'm not a home run hitter to begin with and I certainly wasn't expecting to hit a home run off a guy like Joel Hanrahan," Paul said. "I was just trying to get on base and he happened to throw me a fastball up in the zone."
The Reds scored twice in the second inning on Votto's ground-rule double and Todd Frazier's groundout. Jones' 26th home run, a two-run shot in the bottom half, tied it.
Four minutes into the game, umpires stopped play for a 4-minute rain delay. ... Reds 2B Brandon Phillips was removed from the game in the sixth with tightness in his left leg that first flared up while running the bases in the third. SS Cozart replaced him in the lineup, with Valdez moving to second base. After the game, Phillips declared he would be fine. ... The Pirates recognized the 40-year anniversary of Roberto Clemente's 3,000th hit during a pregame ceremony. ... The Reds and second-place St. Louis have split 12 games so far this season with St. Louis winning two of three played at Busch Stadium. ... Pittsburgh closes its season with three games against the Atlanta Braves, a team it has not played since April.