For the first time in 15 years, the Pittsburgh Pirates enter September within striking distance of the playoffs.
To get to the postseason, they'll need their MVP-candidate center fielder and the anchor of their rotation to leave their August struggles behind.
With the slumping Andrew McCutchen expected back in the lineup, A.J. Burnett looks to bounce back from another shaky start Saturday night when the Pirates try to avoid losing for the eighth time in 11 games as they take on the red-hot Milwaukee Brewers .
With a 9-3 loss in Friday's opener in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh (70-61) concluded August 11-17 to drop 10 games back of NL Central-leading Cincinnati after being three out at the end of July. The Pirates, however, are still just one-half game back of the NL's second wild-card spot, making this the closest they've been to the playoffs entering September since 1997, when they were 2 1/2 games back in the division race.
The Pirates' August fade shouldn't be too surprising, though, considering the play of McCutchen and Burnett (15-5, 3.67 ERA).
McCutchen, who was given Friday off, still leads the league with a .344 average - 29 points lower since Aug. 1 after hitting .252 with two homers last month. A series in Milwaukee, however, could be just what he needs to get back on track.
In six games at Miller Park this season, McCutchen is batting .500 with four homers and nine RBIs. He is also 1 for 3 with a homer against scheduled starter Marco Estrada (2-5, 4.02).
Burnett leads Pittsburgh in wins, but he seems to have hit a wall. The Pirates have lost three of his last four starts, with the right-hander recording a 6.29 ERA. Pittsburgh had the same number of losses in his first 20 starts, with Burnett posting a 3.19 ERA.
One of those defeats came in his lone start against the Brewers on July 15, when he permitted four runs and nine hits in seven innings of a 4-1 final in Milwaukee (63-68). He is 1-3 with a 6.48 ERA in four career starts at Miller Park, and Ryan Braun is 5 for 10 lifetime off him.
The Pirates are hopeful Burnett can go deep after Friday's starter Jeff Karstens got just one out before leaving with a leg injury."I don't want to put my team in a situation like that," Karstens said
Braun is batting .478 with two homers, four doubles and seven RBIs in his last five games, and he might not even be Milwaukee's hottest hitter.
Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez both went 3 for 4 with home runs Friday, as the Brewers won for the ninth time in 11 games. Hart is batting .364 with three homers and 13 RBIs in the last 14 games, while Ramirez is hitting .433 with four home runs and 14 RBIs in his last eight.
The Brewers are averaging 6.5 runs in their last 11 games, which has been a benefit to Estrada, but the righty is also pitching much better.
Estrada ended a streak of 15 starts and 14 relief appearances without a win by throwing six scoreless innings in beating the Cubs on Aug. 21. Six days later in Chicago, he allowed three unearned runs and six hits in five innings of a 15-4 victory.
His last win against a team other than the Cubs came over Pittsburgh on Aug. 23, 2011. In his lone start of this season against the Pirates on July 14, Estrada gave up three runs in 5 2-3 innings.
|August 31, 2012||Jeff Karstens||Day-to-Day||Hip flexor|
|August 27, 2012||Neil Walker||Day-to-Day||Lower back stiffness|
|August 25, 2012||Jose Tabata||Day-to-Day||Left game - left groin discomfort|
|August 25, 2012||Chad Qualls||15-Day DL||Left toe sprain|
|August 19, 2012||Starling Marte||15-Day DL||Strained right oblique|
|August 15, 2012||Neil Walker||Day-to-Day||Dislocated finger|
|July 29, 2012||Aramis Ramirez||Day-to-Day||Sore left wrist|
|July 17, 2012||Ryan Braun||Day-to-Day||Right thigh strain|
|June 15, 2012||Shaun Marcum||60-Day DL||Right elbow tightness|
|June 15, 2012||Shaun Marcum||60-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|
MILWAUKEE (AP) -- Brewers first baseman Corey Hart and his teammates had seen the Milwaukee bullpen give up leads many times this season as they did again Saturday.
But Hart did something about it this time as he led off the ninth inning with his 26th home run of the season to lift the Brewers to a 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates .
Hart hit the second pitch he saw from Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan (4-1) into the Brewers bullpen in left field. It was his third career game-ending home run.
"You can't get down," Hart said. "We've had a lot of tough luck this year. Our guys are out there battling and we just have to stay in the game and do what we can to win."
And winning is what the Brewers have been doing lately. The victory was the Brewers second straight over the Pirates and the team's 10th win in its last 12 games.
"A lot of people counted us out a long time ago," Hart said. "But we think we have a pretty good club and we're making a nice little run. Other people are starting to notice us all of a sudden."
Hanrahan said he the pitch to Hart was a hanging breaking ball.
"The guys battled their butts off and I come in and throw two pitches and the game is over," he said.
Marco Estrada gave up one run on four hits and struck out 10 in seven innings for Milwaukee. He has given up just one earned run in his last three starts. Estrada got out of a major jam in the sixth inning. With the bases loaded, Estrada struck out Pedro Alvarez looking after Alvarez fouled off four pitches on a 3-2 count.
Estrada said he was thrilled to win the battle with Alvarez, which he called one of the toughest of his career.
"He kept fouling balls off," he said. "It was tough, but I knew I just had to keep the ball down and get him out."
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said Estrada pitched very well, keeping the Brewers in the game until Hart could win it in the end.
"He really did a nice job tonight," Roenicke said.
John Axford (5-7), who got out of a bases-loaded jam in the top of the ninth inning by striking out Alex Presley , got the win for the Brewers.
The Pirates lost for the ninth time in the last 12 games as Pittburgh continues to try to stay in the National League Wild Card playoff race.
A.J. Burnett took a no-hitter into the sixth inning for the Pirates before giving up a two-out bloop single to Rickie Weeks . He came back to strike out Ryan Braun to end the inning.
Burnett pitched 6 2-3 innings, giving up two runs and two hits. He had nine strikeouts and four walks. It was a nice bounce back for Burnett, who had struggled in recent starts. The Pirates had lost three of his last four starts and he had recorded a 6.29 ERA over those four games.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said his team was done in by 14 strikeouts.
"We have plenty of opportunities," he said. "Unfortunately, we've had some games like that this season."
The Pirates grabbed a 1-0 lead in the second inning as Alvarez hit his 27th home run of the season.
The Brewers tied the score at 1-1 in the third inning without getting a hit. Carlos Gomez walked, stole second and third base and then scored on a wild pitch.
The Brewers grabbed the lead in the seventh inning 2-1 on Gomez's RBI double.
Pittsburgh tied the game in the eighth inning off of Brewers reliever Jim Henderson . Pinch hitter Brock Holt walked and advanced to second on a sacrifice. With two out, Andrew McCutchen hit a broken bat single to right field to score Holt. It was the Brewers' 26th blown save of the season.
Notes: Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said rookie RHP Mark Rogers would be shut down for the rest of the season. Rogers, who has a 3-1 record with a 3.92 ERA, was the winning pitcher in the Brewers 9-3 win Friday. ...The Pirates added catcher Eric Fryer , LHP Jeff Locke , LHP Justin Wilson , RHP Chris Leroux and Holt to their roster from Triple A Indianapolis. ... McCutchen did not hit a home run, breaking a streak of four consecutive games with a home run at Miller Park.