Getting silenced by previously winless Jenrry Mejia and reeled by Ike Davis' two homers for five RBIs, the Bucs were left needing seven wins, in nine remaining games, for 82. A tall task, considering their last seven wins have come in 26 games.
Making Sunday's 18-hit attack in Houston seem even more eccentric in retrospect, the Pirates on Monday were held to just eight knocks.
The Bucs' one choice chance for a first strike, something that has been a definite rarity, went out from under Josh Harrison's feet in the top of the third. Harrison had walked with one away and gone to second on a passed ball before Andrew McCutchen also drew a walk ahead of a grounder to second by Garrett Jones.
McCutchen was an easy forceout at second, but his hard slide upset shortstop Ruben Tejada. Thus unable to make a relay to first, Tejada instead looked to third -- where Harrison had made too wide a turn and, as he tried to apply the brakes, went splat. After a brief rundown, Harrison was tagged out.
"He just lost his footing," Hurdle said. "Nine times out of 10, on a ball like that there's a double-play opportunity and you get that run if you beat the play at first. Unfortunately, where we're going right now, this one backfired on us as well."
Pittsburgh thus was blanked until McCutchen's one-out triple off Jeurys Familia, New York's fourth pitcher, triggered an eighth-inning rally against a lengthening parade of Mets hurlers. Jones singled off lefty Robert Carson to deliver McCutchen, and Neil Walker also singled before Bobby Parnell induced Gaby Sanchez to ground into a rally-killing double play.
In an unusual duel between two right-handers each in search of his first Major League win, Kyle McPherson blinked first to the delight of Mejia.
McPherson's control left him briefly in the fourth, leading to Davis leaving the park. McPherson began the inning by walking David Wright, and followed that by falling behind Davis 3-0. After McPherson delivered a show-me strike, Davis delivered his 29th homer for a 2-0 New York lead.
"I tried to execute a good pitcher's pitch there, and it didn't work out," said McPherson, who had thrown one-hit shutout ball through the first three innings. "A sinker. Got up, and he put a good swing on it. My command in a couple of innings was a little shaky. Not missing much, just off the corners."
Even after McPherson departed, Davis kept hurting him. He left behind a pair of runners with one out in the fifth and both scored. Wright's single brought in the first, then Davis' second homer, a three-run job off Jeff Karstens, cleared the bases and put Mejia's win in a 6-0 safe.
Karstens, the erstwhile starter, made his first mid-inning relief appearance for the season in quite a tough situation, getting Wright and Davis back to back as the first batters he faced.
"I've done it before," said Karstens, referring to his considerable past body of relief work. "I've just got to make better pitches and get those guys out. There's no excuses like, 'You have to pitch out of the bullpen,' or whatever the case may be. In those situations, I've got to get those outs for this team."
Mejia had departed for a pinch-hitter during that fifth-inning rally, having hurled four-hit shutout ball with two walks and four strikeouts.
McPherson's line was similar to that of his first big league start, Wednesday against Milwaukee, when he went 4 1/3 innings and allowed two runs. This time, he went 4 1/3 innings and was charged with four.
The proof may not have been in the box score, but McPherson, clearly pitching for a spot in next season's rotation, considered it progress from his first opportunity.
"I feel like I'm getting into a routine," said McPherson, who had made seven unscheduled relief appearances until getting that first start. "It's always big for me when I have that set routine. So I felt my arm strength was a lot better, but that just comes from having the routine and those days to prepare."
Hurdle himself thought McPherson's second shot was a little less precise than the first had been.
"His fastball was fresher," Hurdle said, "but his command wasn't as sharp. The leadoff walks in the fourth [leading to a 28-pitch inning] and fifth [leading to the runs] complicated things for him. Kyle faced 19 batters, and retired only four on three pitches or less, which is not very efficient."
McCutchen went 1-for-3, with that eighth-inning triple, to keep his league-leading average at .336 and maintain a four-point lead over Buster Posey, the San Francisco catcher who took a bye Monday with his .332 mark. At least McCutchen doesn't have to worry about Wright, who has faded dramatically since looming as one of the Pirates center fielder's main challengers in the middle of the season.
The Mets third baseman was hitting .353 on July 19, but even with his RBI single in Monday's game has hit merely .234 since, dropping his overall average to .304.
So Wright has a fight on his hands just to stay above .300. The Pirates face a bigger fight to get above .500. They all have their own dragons to slay.