Brewers-Pirates Preview

Yovani Gallardo hasn’t pitched very well recently, but there’s something about taking the mound at PNC Park that seems to bring out the best in him.

Never have the Milwaukee Brewers been more desperate for that trend to continue.

Overtaken by the red-hot Pirates for the NL’s final playoff spot, Gallardo and the Brewers find their once-promising season hanging in the balance as they open a three-game set in Pittsburgh on Friday night.

From April 4 to Aug. 31, Milwaukee (79-74) never left first place, but what at once seemed like a season to remember has been slowly morphing into a nightmare down the stretch.

The Brewers led the NL Central by 2 1/2 games over St. Louis and six over the Pirates exactly one month ago, but the teams have drastically shuffled positions since. Milwaukee has lost 19 of its last 27, with Thursday’s 3-2, 13-inning heartbreaker against the Cardinals dropping it six back of division-leading St. Louis and 3 1/2 behind Pittsburgh (82-70) for the second wild-card spot.

Should the Brewers leave Pittsburgh without a win, they’ll be all but mathematically eliminated.

"I think it’s going to be a playoff atmosphere," Gallardo told MLB’s official website. "Both teams know it’s a very important series, especially here at the end of the season and the situation we’re in. This is what you play for. … They’re going to be intense games."

While Milwaukee heads into this series with an air of desperation, Pittsburgh is feeling as confident as it has all season. The Pirates finished a sweep of Boston with a 3-2 win Thursday, their 11th in 13 games.

A night after Gregory Polanco, Neil Walker and Ike Davis went deep, Starling Marte’s fifth-inning homer proved to be the difference.

"What you continue to see is different guys stepping up," manager Clint Hurdle said. "… You see guys battling, you see guys just posting up and going."

Pittsburgh outscored its last 13 opponents – all last-place clubs – 73-34, and it’s crossed the plate 13 more times than Milwaukee in this season series. But the Pirates are just 5-11 against the Brewers thanks to five one-run losses.

Their wins have come by an average of seven runs.

What may give Pittsburgh additional pause in Friday’s opener is a matchup with Gallardo (8-10, 3.59 ERA), who is 6-2 with a 1.44 ERA in 10 career starts on the shores of the Allegheny – most recently tossing seven innings in a 1-0 win June 8.

"They have good hitters," Gallardo said. "They do a lot of both – both average and power-wise. You have to go out there and make adjustments after seeing what the hitters are trying to do.

Of late, however, Gallardo hasn’t been sharp. He held Cincinnati to two runs over six innings Saturday in a 5-1 loss, but he’s now 0-4 with a 5.26 ERA in a five-outing stretch that began when he gave up six runs – three earned – over five while falling 8-3 to the Pirates on Aug. 22.

Andrew McCutchen took Gallardo deep for the second time this season. He’s 9 for 25 with three homers in his last six games against Milwaukee pitching.

Getting the win that day was Jeff Locke (7-5, 3.66), who will again oppose Gallardo. The left-hander walked six in six innings against the Brewers without a strikeout last month, but the only damage came on a first-inning homer by Ryan Braun.

None of the three walks Locke issued Saturday against the Chicago Cubs came around to score, but six hits cost him three runs over 5 1-3 innings in a 6-4 loss.

The Pirates had won Locke’s previous seven starts at PNC behind his 3.04 ERA.