SAN FRANCISCO -- The Pirates and Giants continued heading in opposite directions, particularly in the fifth inning of their series finale Wednesday, when Andrew McCutchen's two-run homer capped a six-run outburst that pushed Pittsburgh past San Francisco, 6-5.
"We know we're not always going to win, but we know if we play our best baseball, we're going to be hard to deal with," said McCutchen, the leader of a revitalized Pirates lineup.
Pittsburgh swept the three-game series to hike its record since June 24 to 28-17, best in the Major Leagues since that date. By contrast, the Giants' Major League-worst mark since the All-Star break dipped to 9-21. San Francisco leads the Wild Card standings, while Pittsburgh trails St. Louis by one game for the second Wild Card berth.
"We've been a confident group all year. Road trips like this really bring a team together," closer Tony Watson said of the Pirates' 5-1 swing through Los Angeles and San Francisco. "We're playing great baseball right now. Playing well down the stretch has been key the last few years. … This year is no different."
Giants starter Matt Cain had a one-hitter and a 4-0 lead before unraveling in the fifth, when he yielded all of Pittsburgh's runs. Thereafter, the Pirates bullpen fended off the Giants by surrendering four hits in the final five innings, two of them in the ninth when San Francisco loaded the bases but managed only one run, on Buster Posey's double-play grounder.
Cain admitted the defeat was difficult to stomach, particularly given San Francisco's early lead.
"We've done a good job, when guys have given us a lead, to keep it," Cain said. "Definitely, with everything that's going on, we didn't need that to happen today."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED In a pinch: The Pirates' fifth-inning rally began without a hit. Cain loaded the bases on a hit-by-pitch and two walks, then Eric Fryer walked to get the Pirates on the board. But Matt Joyce delivered the Pirates' first big hit, a two-run, pinch-hit single to right field. Joyce has driven in 15 runs as a pinch-hitter this season. Manager Clint Hurdle had to remove starter Ivan Nova, putting more pressure on his bullpen to cover five innings, but he wanted to seize the opportunity with the bases loaded against a struggling pitcher.
"You've got to take advantage of those innings when a guy is putting guys in scoring positions, walking guys, falling behind guys," Joyce said. "You have to capitalize, and sure enough, we did."
Rough day at the office: Giants first baseman Brandon Belt endured an afternoon to forget before singling to load the bases with none out in the ninth. The All-Star struck out three times, painfully fouled a pitch off his right knee in the fifth inning and couldn't hold on to Fryer's foul popup with the bases loaded and nobody out in the fifth. Fryer ultimately walked to force in Pittsburgh's first run.
Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, he of the seven-hit game at Miami on Aug. 8, doubled and tripled to drive in three runs in his first two at-bats. Crawford's fortunes reversed themselves in his final three plate appearances, as he stranded four baserunners.
"We had a few chances to add on and get a few more runs," Crawford said. More »
"Bucket of guts": A day after narrowly escaping a ninth-inning jam, Watson put himself in another tough spot. Pitching with a two-run lead in Wednesday's ninth, Watson walked the leadoff man and gave up two singles, bringing up Posey with the bases loaded and nobody out. After a short chat with pitching coach Ray Searage, Watson told Fryer he wanted to attack the All-Star catcher down in the zone. Posey tapped it up the middle, where shortstop Jordy Mercer and second baseman Josh Harrison turned a crucial double play.
"Didn't hit it real hard so I knew it would be close," Watson said. "Jordy and Josh did a great job making a turn. Big double play."
With the lead down to one run and the tying run 90 feet from home plate, Watson got Crawford to fly out to center field, finishing the heart-pounding save.
"Watson took a bucket of guts out there to get through the ninth," Hurdle said.
Constant struggle: Nearly 40 percent of the Giants' losses since the All-Star break, eight of 21, have come by one-run margins.
"A loss is a loss," Crawford said. "We come back out the next day, we're ready to go and we try to win that day. It's hard to really put into words how tough each one is."
The last time the Giants lost at least 20 games in a similar stretch occurred from June 11-July 24, 2014. They reached the postseason by claiming a Wild Card berth, then proceeded to win the World Series.
"We're taking our blows right now, but it's a tough club, a resilient club," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said.
"Obviously this is the time of year teams make or break themselves. It's nice to see some guys turn the corner and keep fighting and keep pushing, because it's very easy to just say, 'We're not in the race,' and just kind of roll over. It's exciting, man. It's exciting to be a part of, and we're having a lot of fun." -- Joyce
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
The Pirates completed their fifth series sweep of the season and their third on the road. They have won each of their last four series and gone 10-3-2 in their last 15 since the Giants took three of four against them in Pittsburgh from June 20-23.
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
The Pirates lost their challenge in the first inning after asking for a review to determine whether Posey touched the plate before catcher Fryer tagged him following Crawford's triple to left-center. The ruling was not confirmed, but a replay official determined that it should stand as called on the field. Posey scored and the Giants took a 2-0 lead.
WHAT'S NEXT Pirates: After an off-day in Pittsburgh on Thursday, the Pirates will begin a three-game series against the Marlins at 7:05 p.m. ET on Friday at PNC Park. Right-hander Gerrit Cole, coming off two rough starts against the Reds and Dodgers, will try to get back on track at home, where he has posted a 2.94 ERA in nine starts this season.
Giants: A marquee pitching matchup is in store for Thursday's series opener against the Mets as San Francisco's Madison Bumgarner and New York's Jacob deGrom oppose each other beginning at 7:15 p.m. PT. Bumgarner (2.11) and deGrom (2.30) rank second and fourth, respectively, in National League ERA.