Norichika Aoki led off the game with a home run and right-hander Marco Estrada did the rest, pitching seven scoreless innings and accounting for two more runs -- one with an RBI single and another when he reached on an error.
The Brewers improved to 76-72 and were three outs shy of their third consecutive shutout victory, a feat that would have matched a club record. They settled for their 22nd win in 28 games.
The Pirates, meanwhile, lost for the 20th time in 27 games and fell back to .500, at 74-74. They are 24-68 against the Brewers since 2007, the worst record for any Major League team against a divisional opponent in that span.
"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."
Estrada's postgame interview was interrupted by his teammates erupting around him. The Nationals had just scored six times in the bottom of the eighth inning to tie the Dodgers, one of the teams the Brewers are pursuing for the second Wild Card berth.
The Dodgers wound up winning, as did the Cardinals. Still, it was a positive night for the Brewers. The Brewers remain 2 1/2 games behind the 79-70 Cardinals and have moved to within a half-game of the 77-72 Dodgers, who split their doubleheader with the Nationals. The Brewers have 14 regular-season games to play.
"It's amazing," Estrada said of the Brewers' recent run up the standings. "It feels a lot like last year, where we were all just super-relaxed. We're having a great time playing. It's just a great atmosphere, and it's been pretty good that way all year. We haven't got down on ourselves."
Estrada, pitching for the first time in eight days, shook off a feeling in the bullpen that he was "out of whack" and improved to 3-0 with a 1.43 ERA in eight career appearances against Pittsburgh, limiting the damage to three hits in seven scoreless innings, with one walk and four strikeouts.
Estrada stranded a runner in scoring position in the first inning and again in the second, then found a rhythm. He allowed only one hit and did not allow a runner past first base over his final five innings, and when reliever Jim Henderson worked a scoreless eighth, the Pirates' scoreless streak was extended to 23 innings.
"He's definitely a hard guy to square up and do any damage against," Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones said of Estrada. "He's pitching his [tail] off."
The Pirates snapped their scoreless streak in the ninth inning, when Andrew McCutchen hit an opposite-field homer off closer John Axford. Axford rebounded to convert his 12th consecutive save chance, and reached 30 saves for the season.
Axford joins MLB Network analyst Dan Plesac as the only Brewers closers to log at least 30 saves in consecutive years. Plesac saved 30 games in 1988 and 33 in '89.
"That's pretty cool," Axford said. "It's not the exact route I wanted to take this year to get this point, but things happen for a reason. I'm back 'on it' right now."
Told that Axford has reached the 30-save plateau, Estrada did a double-take.
"Really?" he asked. "That's awesome, man. I'm really happy for him. He's completely turned the season around."
Aoki gave the Brewers a quick lead against Pirates right-hander Kyle McPherson, who made his first Major League start. Aoki hit McPherson's second pitch for a no-doubt homer to the right-field seats, his ninth home run this season and the first leadoff homer of his Major League career.
The Brewers did not score again until the fifth, when Jean Segura doubled leading off the inning and Estrada poked a McPherson pitch down the right-field line for an RBI single. In the seventh, Segura led off with another extra-base hit, this time a triple, and scored when Estrada hit a grounder under second baseman Brock Holt's glove for an error.
The Pirates slipped to .500 for the first time since June 2, when they were 26-26. At their high point, on Aug. 8, they were 16 games over .500.
"We earned the position we were in before. We've earned this position as well," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "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 Brewers are heading in the opposite direction.
"This is a lot
of fun," Estrada said. "This is exciting. We're all very confident right now."