Pirates struggle to sustain momentum

Pirates struggle to sustain momentum

CHICAGO -- Five steps forward, five steps back. Four steps forward, three more back.

The Pirates' wheel-spinning second half continued Wednesday night, when the Cubs completed a three-game sweep by handing the Bucs a 6-5 loss. Coming off a rare four-game sweep of the Brewers at Miller Park, the Pirates couldn't gain any more ground in the National League Wild Card race at Wrigley Field.

"We got pushed down three games in a row. We just went through Milwaukee and pushed forward four days in a row," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "You just keep showing up and keep playing. It's the beauty of the sport and the beauty of what those men out there do, are built to do and are wired to do together."

It has been a frustrating theme of Pittsburgh's season, magnified in smaller stretches since the All-Star break. Wednesday's loss dropped them to an even .500, 21-21, in the second half. Before that, they bounced back and forth with a 28-19 start to the season, followed by a 9-22 slump, only to be redeemed by a 9-2 run heading into the break.

The last three weeks have perfectly encapsulated Pittsburgh's struggle to maintain momentum.

"Ups and downs" shortstop Jordy Mercer said. "I wish we had the answer. I don't know. I can't pinpoint one thing. It's part of it, really."

First, the Pirates surged back into the postseason picture by winning five of six against the Dodgers and Giants during an impressive West Coast road trip. Back home at PNC Park, they dropped five of six to the Marlins and Astros.

Then they stormed into Miller Park, their personal house of horrors, and pulled off their first-ever four game sweep in Milwaukee. That brought them to Chicago, where the Cubs provided a three-game reminder of why they lead the NL Central by 15 games.

"It's obviously not the way we wanted to play against them, but they're good for a reason," Mercer said. "We've got to come and play every day when we play these guys."

The Pirates didn't play poorly at the Friendly Confines. They were simply outplayed: outlasted in Monday's 13-inning marathon loss, outpitched by NL Cy Young Award candidate Kyle Hendricks on Tuesday and outslugged by a lineup led by NL MVP candidate Kris Bryant in the finale.

"We played good," Mercer said. "It just didn't work out."

Yet, the Pirates will enter the final month of the season with a realistic chance of reaching the postseason for the fourth straight season. They left Wrigley Field trailing the Cardinals by 2 1/2 games for the second NL Wild Card spot, and they will play St. Louis six times in the final month of the season.

For all their ups and downs this season, through a hot start and midseason skid and this break-even second half, Pittsburgh still has its sights set on October baseball.

"They keep coming. Why would you back away?" Hurdle said. "You've got a month of baseball left to play, so you've got to keep pushing it out there every day, regardless if you get pushed down."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.