PITTSBURGH -- Step by misstep, they have arrived at the precipice. One more bad step, and the Pirates go over the edge, back into the abyss. Welcome to the dawn of the dread: One more loss, and the Bucs will again be looking up at .500.Wednesday's 3-1 loss to the Brewers lowered the Pirates' record to 74-74, the first time it has been at the break-even point since June 2, when the Bucs were 26-26, summer's joyride still in front of them. Now there is no joy in Pittsburgh. The mirage of a postseason oasis continues to dissolve, and bringing an end to 19 seasons of losing has become a bona fide mission, not a consolation. "It stinks," Garrett Jones said of being back at .500. "We don't want to be here, but it's the way the game is going right now." Like many things, .500 is a matter of perspective. The Brewers were delighted to get there on Sept. 11 after spending much of the summer buried as much as 12 games under. "We earned the position we were in before," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We've earned this position as well. We haven't played well for a while. The season is 162 games for a reason. If you want more, you've got to do more." The Pirates could not do any more with Milwaukee right-hander Marco Estrada than they did the first two times they saw him this season. In run-in No. 3, Estrada toyed with them for seven innings, holding them to three hits. The Pirates' lone salvo came on Andrew McCutchen's leadoff homer in the ninth off John Axford. McCutchen's 29th of the season set a club record for center fielders (breaking his tie with Brian Giles) and capped a 2-for-4 day that lifted the batting title contender's average to .340. It also broke a 23-inning scoreless streak dating back to Monday night's third inning in Chicago. Estrada won for the first time in three starts against Pittsburgh, the other two having been no-decisions. In 19 2/3 innings against the Bucs, he has allowed four runs while striking out 25 against three walks. "Estrada came after us pretty much the same way, with minor variations to a couple of guys," said Hurdle, frustration evident in his voice. "Fastball away, spotted well, and mixes in his breaking ball and change. He definitely threw the fastball for strikes; we had over a dozen shots at balls on the other third, and weren't able to square up anything." "He's definitely a hard guy to square up and do any damage against," concurred Jones, whose 0-for-4 night included a fourth-inning straightaway drive that a month ago might have left the park but, in the cool air of September, was caught at the wall by center fielder Carlos Gomez. "He's pitching his [tail] off." Estrada, who ran Milwaukee starters' scoreless streak to 21 2/3 innings across the last three games, never gave the Bucs a chance to recover after they'd fallen behind on the game's second pitch. "I'm sure they weren't happy to see us here," Estrada said. "We're just playing great ball. I wouldn't want to play us right now."
In his first Major League start, Kyle McPherson allowed a home run to the first batter he faced, Norichika Aoki, then toughened to carry the one-run game into the fifth.If nerves betrayed McPherson at the outset, he quickly calmed them. The 24-year-old was by no means flawless; he didn't have a single three-up, three-down inning. But with the help of the occasional timely defensive play, he put up four straight zeros until his exit inning. "The nerves were definitely there," McPherson admitted. "The adrenaline pumps through your blood. As red-hot as they are, I focused on trying to get quick outs and getting as deep as I could into the game." Aoki's second-pitch homer over the Clemente Wall put the Bucs into a quick one-run deficit. McPherson kept it there until Jean Segura led off the fifth with a double and was given third on a balk before scoring on Estrada's single. After getting an out on a foul outfield fly, McPherson gave way to Chris Resop. Resop allowed the Brewers to load the bases on back-to-back singles by Rickie Weeks and Ryan Braun, then pulled the rug out from under them by deftly turning Aramis Ramirez's comebacker into a home-to-first double play. Jeff Karstens, making his first relief outing of the season and his first appearance since Aug. 31, allowed the deficit to reach three runs in the seventh, but even during that displayed tenacity. Segura opened Karstens' second inning of work with a triple to center and scored when Estrada, with the infield playing up, punched a ball through Brock Holt for an error. Aoki's ensuing single appeared to set up the Brewers for a big inning, but Karstens elicited a double-play ball from Weeks, then fanned Braun to close out the inning. McPherson's best quality -- his doggedness -- did not show up in his pitching line. In 4 1/3 innings, he allowed seven hits and two runs, walking one and striking out two. "I thought he was very resilient. He showed poise and battled very well," Hurdle said. "His fastball was a little bit up early, but he settled down, and the change and curve both got better as the game went on." But the Bucs' habitual quick deficit was already in place. As they did the night before, when a second-inning run put A.J. Burnett into a one-run hole they could never escape, the Pirates spent the game in comeback mode. "The last two nights, we're chasing the game from the beginning," said Hurdle.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.