The Pittsburgh Pirates exit the All-Star break in first place for the first time in 15 years.
It's been significantly longer since the last time a pitcher started three consecutive major league games, something Milwaukee's Zack Greinke will achieve in the Brewers' second-half opener.
The Pirates look to continue their march toward a division title Friday night when they open a three-game set against Greinke at Miller Park.
Pittsburgh (48-37) is in the midst of a North American professional sports record of 19 consecutive losing seasons, but there's reason to believe that ugly streak could be coming to an end. The Pirates are 11 games over .500 for the first time since 1992 - the year of their last playoff berth - and are in first place at the break for the first time since '97.
"Everyone looks at Pittsburgh as a team you can come in and beat," scheduled starter James McDonald told the Pirates' official website. "We're here to let guys know we're competitors, we're here to be good for a while."
The Pirates, one game ahead of second-place Cincinnati, are also hoping to avoid a similar late-season free fall as last year, when they were atop the Central on July 25, before finishing 24 games out.
"We've got a lot of games left," Garrett Jones said. "But our confidence is high, and we want to keep that going, keep putting W's on the board."
Two of the biggest reasons Pittsburgh is piling up wins is the play of All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen and McDonald (9-3, 2.37 ERA).
McCutchen - one of the top candidates for league MVP - leads the majors in batting at .362, is tied for fourth in the NL in homers with 18 and is tied for third in the league in RBIs with 60.
Reigning league MVP Ryan Braun has an NL-best 24 homers, is second with 61 RBIs and is hitting .306.
McCutchen hit .553 with four home runs and 12 RBIs in his final nine games before the break with the Pirates winning eight times.
He is 2 for 13 lifetime against Greinke, who will become the first pitcher to start three consecutive games since Red Faber for the Chicago White Sox in 1917. Greinke's name will be forever linked to this baseball oddity after he was ejected from his start Saturday following a four-pitch outing and coming back the next day. Against Houston on Sunday, the right-hander allowed three runs and five hits in three innings of a 10-inning, 5-3 win.
Greinke went 3-1 despite a 5.76 ERA in four starts against the Pirates last season.
Pittsburgh has won seven of McDonald's last eight starts with the right-hander earning the victory in the last four. McDonald, who despite ranking third in the NL in ERA was bypassed for the All-Star game, put together one of his best performances of the season in his final outing before the break, yielding a run and four hits while striking out 10 in seven innings of a 3-1 victory over San Francisco on July 7.
He gave up three runs and four hits with eight strikeouts over six innings in a 6-5 win in Milwaukee on June 3, helping the Pirates take two of three in their lone series of the season.
While Pittsburgh is brimming with confidence, the Brewers (40-45) need to go on quite a surge to repeat as division champs. They're eight games behind Pittsburgh, but could have the advantage Friday considering they've won 21 of Greinke's 22 regular-season starts at Miller Park.
"We still have time," Greinke told the Brewers' official website. "And hopefully that will take care of it."
|July 05, 2012||Alex Presley||7-Day DL||Concussion|
|July 03, 2012||Alex Presley||Day-to-Day||Left game - concussion-like symptoms|
|June 30, 2012||Andrew McCutchen||Day-to-Day||Left game - sprained left wrist|
|June 25, 2012||Rod Barajas||Day-to-Day||Left game - bruised left knee|
|May 30, 2012||Charlie Morton||60-Day DL||Right elbow inflammation|
|May 10, 2012||Daniel McCutchen||15-Day DL||Left oblique strain|
|June 15, 2012||Shaun Marcum||15-Day DL||Right elbow tightness|
|June 02, 2012||Aramis Ramirez||Day-to-Day||Left game - strained left quadricep|
|May 31, 2012||Ryan Braun||Day-to-Day||Tight Achilles|
|May 28, 2012||Jonathan Lucroy||15-Day DL||Fractured right hand, out 4-6 weeks|
|May 26, 2012||Cesar Izturis||15-Day DL||Strained left hamstring|
|May 26, 2012||Travis Ishikawa||15-Day DL||Strained left oblique|
MILWAUKEE (AP) -- Cody Ransom expected Pittsburgh to intentionally walk Rickie Weeks to load the bases with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning of a tie game on Friday night. The Milwaukee shortstop did not expect left-handed pitcher Tony Watson to remain on the mound, however.
But Watson did, and Ransom made him pay by hitting his first career grand slam to lift the Brewers to a 10-7 victory over the Pirates.
"I was surprised they left the lefty in," said Ransom, a right-handed hitter who was 0 for 4 before delivering the team's fourth grand slam of the season. "There was a righty in the bullpen and I figured they'd probably bring him in. Am I surprised about (the intentional walk)? No, I hadn't done anything today."
Ryan Braun hit two home runs as Milwaukee improved to 40-6 against Pittsburgh at Miller Park since 2007. Martin Maldonado finished with a career-high four hits, all singles, to hand Pittsburgh only its third loss in the last 13 games.
Watson (4-1) entered in the eighth and gave up consecutive singles to Braun and Aramis Ramirez . He struck out Corey Hart , but each runner stole a base on the pitch. The Pirates then intentionally walked Weeks, who had already driven in two runs with a double in the first inning.
"Obviously, we wanted that guy up there," Watson said. "We intentionally walked the guy in front of him to load the bases. We wanted to go right at him, go ahead in the count. With two outs, I was hoping to put something in play and let the defense work."
Ransom, however, hit a 2-2 pitch over the wall in left-center for his eighth homer of the season.
Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke wasn't worried in the least.
"I always have that feeling when we have people on base," he said. "It's a lot better to think good things than the other way around. To tell you the truth, I didn't know what he was 0 for."
After the game, members of the media waited to interview Ransom outside his locker while he had to take a drug test.
"That's a Major League Baseball thing," he said. "They tell you when they tell you."
Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen hit a solo homer off John Axford in the ninth.
The Pirates had runners on first and second after reliever Manny Parra walked Neil Walker and gave up a single to McCutchen in the seventh. But he got out of the jam by retiring the next three batters.
Francisco Rodriguez (2-4) pitched the eighth.
In the sixth, Braun's second homer tied the score 6-6. Reliever Brad Lincoln hit the first batter he faced, Nyjer Morgan , but he was caught stealing with Braun at the plate. The NL all-star then smacked his league-leading 26th home run to right.
"Whenever you play a 4-hour game, certainly you want to win, because you feel miserable after you lose a 4-hour game," Braun said.
The game was anything but the expected pitcher's duel between Milwaukee's Zack Greinke and Pittsburgh's James McDonald . Both starters entered with 9-3 records but failed to make it to the sixth inning.
Greinke became the first pitcher since Red Faber of the Chicago White Sox in 1917 to start three consecutive team games in a season. But he gave up a solo home run to Pedro Alvarez in the fifth that gave Pittsburgh a 6-4 lead and was lifted in the bottom of the inning for a pinch-hitter. Greinke, 15-0 as a Brewer at Miller Park, allowed five earned runs and seven hits.
"I didn't pitch perfect by any means," Greinke said. "But I'll take at least over 50 percent of the time pitching like that. I didn't pitch perfect, but I wasn't terrible."
McDonald was 7-1 in his previous 10 starts but gave up four earned runs and eight hits in 4 2-3 innings, his third-shortest outing of the season. After a single by Martin Maldonado put runners at first and second with two outs in the fifth, he was replaced by Lincoln. Travis Ishikawa , hitting for Greinke, delivered a single to left to trim the Pirates' lead to 6-5.
"(Pitching coach) Ray Searage said it best," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. "He said if we could have hooked up an electrical cord to him, we could have lit up the whole stadium. He was amped up and ready to go. We had a couple of pitchers like that tonight. You get some down time and we weren't real sharp off the mound tonight."
Notes: Braun has 16 multi-homer games in his career, including four this year. . McDonald has not lost since June 15, at Cleveland. ... Milwaukee's Aoki Norichika's 15-game hitting streak came to an end after he went 0 for 3 with two walks. . Greinke started Sunday and lasted only three innings, one day after he was ejected by first-base umpire Sam Holbrook after throwing only four pitches. He has not pitched more than six innings in his last five games and he allowed five or more earned runs for the fifth time.