MILWAUKEE — Three weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates boarded their team charter in Milwaukee feeling good.
They’d completed a four-game sweep of the Brewers at Miller Park for the first time since 2004 and moved to within a half-game of the Cardinals for the second National League wild-card spot.
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But since then, it’s gone all downhill for the Pirates, who dropped their next eight contests — including back-to-back sweeps by the Cubs and Brewers — and 13 of their next 16 before finally rebounding with a four-game winning streak against the Phillies and Reds.
Now, they return to Milwaukee, practically out of the playoff chase. The Pirates arrived here Monday 74-75 and five games back of the Giants for the second slot, with St. Louis and Miami standing in between.
"There comes a point in time where the trying hard and the grinding part needs to be let go, and you need to be 6 and get in the backyard and play Whiffle Ball," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "It’s a game. Go play. In challenging times like these, you’ve got to find the fun. You have to get out there and not be concerned about your results and just stay focused in the moment. We’re trying to revisit that in a meaningful way."
After playing a doubleheader Saturday, Hurdle had yet to announce his starting rotation. But Milwaukee will hand the ball to Matt Garza, who has been bit by bad luck over the last month.
He’s allowed 12 runs in his last four outings, but just three of them have been earned, leading to a 1.16 ERA during that stretch.
Garza went five innings his last time out, but a pair of errors led to five unearned runs in a 6-4 loss at Cincinnati.
"We just made it way too hard on Matt," Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell said. "We’re asking him to get five outs. Going through Joey Votto, that’s a tall task."
Garza, the veteran member of Milwaukee’s rotation, took the miscues in stride.
"You just keep pitching," he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Some days the ball finds the gloves, and some days it doesn’t. You just keep making your pitches and keep going. We have a young team. That’s kind of where it’s at.
"I’ve learned from the past you can’t really come down on the guys. You can’t go and harp and wear them out right now. It’s September, and a lot of them it’s their first September playing baseball.
"So you’ve just got to kind of wear it and just keep going."
Milwaukee’s starting pitching has stepped things up a notch over the last few weeks, with the rotation posting an NL-leading 2.85 ERA (49 earned runs, 148 2/3 innings pitched) over the last 27 games while the bullpen has combined for a league-leading 2.65 ERA over its last 28.
As a result, the Brewers have been on a hot streak, winning 11 of 17 since the Pirates’ sweep in Milwaukee, with two series victories over the NL Central Champion Chicago Cubs.
"Our guys just keep doing it," Counsell said. "So, as much as anything, it just speaks to them finishing the season and finishing it strong. [They’re] continuing to play well and at a high level. Obviously, we’re playing good teams. These are really good teams."
Since the start of the 2007 season, the Brewers are 103-60 against the Pirates including a 64-21 mark at Miller Park.