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MIL@PIT: Fiers fans 10 over 6 2/3 innings vs. Pirates

PITTSBURGH -- A small part of Aramis Ramirez felt sheepish about delivering the biggest of the 15 hits at PNC Park on Friday, considering he broke into the big leagues with the Pirates, played through some of their 19 straight losing seasons and that he could look up into the stands on this perfect summer night and appreciate what it meant to have them packed with fans.

A very small part. The rest of Ramirez knew that Brewers victories are precious this year, a fact driven home during another harrowing ninth inning that ended well for Milwaukee this time, with a 6-5 win in the opener of a three-game series.

The Pirates' fourth straight loss left them two games behind the National League Wild Card leaders. Part of Ramirez is rooting for his former franchise, which drew its 14th sellout crowd on Friday.

"I don't remember the last time when I saw that many people in the stands like tonight," Ramirez said. "That's fun to see."

His go-ahead, bases-clearing double spoiled the party, part of a decisive four-run rally in the seventh inning that began with Brewers rookie right-hander Mike Fiers' first Major League hit, a bunt single of all things, suggested by catcher Jonathan Lucroy as a way to snap Fiers' 0-for-22 funk.

After Fiers reached base on his dribbler along the third-base line, Norichika Aoki reached on a fielder's choice, with Fiers out at second base. The Pirates removed starter Wandy Rodriguez for reliever Jared Hughes, who hit Rickie Weeks with a pitch and walked Ryan Braun to load the bases for Ramirez, who lined an 0-1 pitch to the right-center field gap for three runs and a 5-2 Brewers lead.

Ramirez scored what would prove a crucial insurance run on Corey Hart's third hit of the night, an RBI single.

And it all began with a bunt.

"I just wanted to try something different, make them make a play rather than just striking out like I've been doing," Fiers said.

Ramirez's double was his 41st, tops in the NL and still on pace to challenge Lyle Overbay's club-record 53 doubles in 2004.

"That's how you win games, when you come through with those clutch hits, you're going to win a lot of ballgames," Ramirez said. "Especially the way Fiers threw the ball. You know if you give him some support, we're going to be alright."

Fiers matched his career high with 10 strikeouts, and held the Pirates to three runs on five hits over 6 2/3 innings, two of the hits were from catcher Rod Barajas including a solo home run in the bottom of the seventh inning that cut Milwaukee's lead to 6-3.

It was still 6-3 in the ninth, when the Brewers' lead nearly slipped away from closer John Axford.

He talked his way back into the closer's role last week, and converted both of his save opportunities against the Cubs to cap a three-game Brewers sweep. But Axford found immediate trouble against the Pirates, walking the first two batters he faced -- Garrett Jones on a series of fastballs way above the strike zone. Axford watched both runners score, one on a Neil Walker single and another on a two-out single up the middle by pinch-hitter Michael McKenry, who was 0-for-21 going into the at-bat.

After 35 pitches, with the potential tying runner at second base and the winning runner at first, Axford's night was over. Kameron Loe struck out Gaby Sanchez to end the game.

"We pushed it probably as hard as we could," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.

Axford termed his outing a "mild setback."

"Luckily it was a three-run game, so I had a cushion to play with there," he said. "I felt stronger for the last three hitters, so maybe it's a matter of preparing a little bit better down there in the 'pen. First three pitches, I felt good. Then, I didn't. Then, the last three hitters felt good again."

Did manager Ron Roenicke consider this a step back for Axford?

"You never really know," Roenicke said. "I expect him to come back [Saturday] night and get that downhill angle coming again."

Even after throwing 35 pitches on Friday? Roenicke was surprised the count was that high.

"We'll see how he is when he throws [before Saturday's game]," said Roenicke, who has been puzzled by Axford's inconsistencies. "There's something there that, either he doesn't finish the pitch -- something that allows that ball to stay up there so high. Because he's trying to throw it downhill. He's trying to throw low strikes and missing by a lot."

Loe's second save preserved a win for Fiers, whose outing marked a bounce-back considering he had surrendered 12 earned runs over seven innings in his previous two starts.

Fiers was perfect through three innings before allowing three consecutive hits to begin the fourth, including Andrew McCutchen's tying, two-run single. He did not allow another run until the seventh, after the Brewers had built their lead.

"Coming out and throwing a good game, especially against the Pirates, is huge," Fiers said. "Those guys, I think they came off a series where they weren't playing well, and I think they had that urge to come out strong against us."

Fiers' biggest contribution came at the plate, his bunt that dribbled all of 60 feet up the third-base line, but was crucial to the Brewers' big inning.

"Crazy things happen when pitchers get on base," Fiers said.

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