SAN DIEGO -- For a brief moment Tuesday night, Garrett Jones had done it.
His second home run of the game sailed through the dark, unyielding San Diego air, tying the score with two outs in the ninth, erasing a two-run deficit against the Padres, who have tortured the Pirates of late.
"It felt good," Jones said. "It felt real good. The Padres have been playing good baseball against us all year. We really wanted to get the win [Monday] to try to take the series. It just goes to show you we just fight to the end. We're never out of any game. We're always going to battle to the end."
Chase Headley rendered the home run irrelevant in the 10th inning, and the Pirates lost again, one of the 10 losses in their past 14 games. Whatever the cause of the skid, it hasn't been Jones.
Through that 14-game period, Jones hit .360 with 5 home runs, 5 doubles, 17 RBIs and an .800 slugging percentage. He has helped the Pirates hang around with the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers in the chase for an NL wild-card spot, a chase that resumes tonight at home against the Milwaukee Brewers.
"I think it feels a lot better when you're doing well and the team's winning," Jones said. "Where we're at right now, and being able to play well and help the team and do that and contribute, it makes it very special."
Jones' recent play coincided with the recent decline -- such as that is -- of Andrew McCutchen, who, after hitting at least .360 in each of the past three months, and .446 in July, enters the game tonight with a .253 average in August.
"I'm not happy with how I'm swinging right now, of course," McCutchen said. "I'm sure you know that. Definitely like to be better than where I am."
McCutchen, a front-runner for the NL most valuable player award, is hitting .349 with a .995 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. His play over the past three weeks stands out mostly because of the cartoonish numbers he generated in June and July. While his strikeout rate has increased in August, so has his walk rate.
"I know I'm a lot better than where I am right now," he said. "I still got to go out and keep working hard."
When Jones starts, a more frequent event these days, he often hits fourth behind McCutchen.
"Cutch is one of the best hitters in the game," Jones said. "He's very patient. He doesn't chase a lot of balls. Teams are careful with him, and he takes his walks.
"When he takes his walks, he gets on there, he can steal a base, get into scoring position, and it's my job or the next guy's to try to drive him in."
It wasn't McCutchen but Neil Walker who stood on first when Jones hit his 21st home run to center Tuesday, causing Padres interim closer Dale Thayer to blow the save.
Two homers at Petco Park, the third most difficult park to homer in according to ESPN.com's park factor, is no easy feat.
"It barely got out," Jones said. "I thought it was going to get out a little more. You have to square it up and you have to put a good swing on it.
"You're not going to get any cheap homers here. I think it's frustrating as a hitter and good for the pitchers."
NOTES -- Jordy Mercer is expected to activated from the paternity list before the game tonight. Manager Clint Hurdle said he expects the Pirates to return to a five-man rotation and carry five bench players, meaning they will need to remove a pitcher from the roster if they do so. ... Hurdle said the Pirates will re-evaluate Starling Marte (strained right oblique) Friday to see if he is ready for physical activity.pirates
Bill Brink: email@example.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published August 24, 2012 4:00 AM