The playoffs are a fading fantasy. A winning season is a dimming dream. Now, the Pirates offense has nearly vanished, too.
The Pirates went 23 innings without scoring a run until Andrew McCutchen hit a solo homer in the ninth inning Wednesday night, but that lone spurt of offense did little to damage the Milwaukee Brewers, who beat the Pirates, 3-1, at PNC Park.
With the loss, the Pirates (74-74) have dropped to .500 for the first time since June 2. At one point, they were 16 games over .500 in pursuit of their first winning season since 1992.
"We haven't played well," manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's been awhile. We had earned the position we were in before. We've earned this position as well. The season is 162 games for a reason. We've talked about finishing from the start of spring training.
"We've got to finish."
The Pirates had a 60-44 record Aug. 1. Since then, they are 14-30.
Garrett Jones said he couldn't have imagined the Pirates dropping back to .500, given how strong they played in the middle of the season.
"It's definitely frustrating," he said. "Nobody's madder or more [ticked] off than we are. It's something that we didn't see coming."
Milwaukee (76-72) outhit the Pirates, 11-6, to claim its sixth consecutive victory against its National League Central Division foe. In the first two games of this three-game series, the Brewers have amassed 24 hits. The Pirates have nine.
Adding insult to insult was that 23 consecutive scoreless innings streak.
Milwaukee starter Marco Estrada twice put the ball in play to bring home Brewers runs Wednesday night.
Hurdle said his team did not adopt a different approach against Estrada, who was sharp in two previous outings against them this season.
Specifically, he wanted one of his batters to attack Estrada's curveball. But nobody could get to the Brewers starter, who allowed three hits over seven scoreless innings. He struck out four batters, walked another.
"There is more to get done," Hurdle said. "We've got to find a way to jump-start this offense."
Jones said the problems on offense also are a result of their inability to make good contact.
"For whatever reason, things aren't clicking on all gears right now," he said. "We've been hitting the ball -- just missing it or just getting under it or just getting on top of it."
Rookie pitcher Kyle McPherson, making his first career start, took the loss after allowing two earned runs and seven hits in 41/3 innings. He struck out two batters and walked one.
McPherson left with a runner on first having thrown only 71 pitches, his endurance lacking because he had thrown out of the bullpen the past three weeks.
His initial welcome to the rotation did not go so well.
After throwing a ball to leadoff batter Norichika Aoki, McPherson served him a 90 mph fastball in the middle of the strike zone. Aoki sent it sailing over the right-field wall for his ninth home run this season and his first career leadoff homer.
"Nerves were definitely there," McPherson said. "Adrenaline was definitely flowing through your blood. I was out there trying to focus on [pitching] down in the zone, getting strike one."
His performance improved from there, but McPherson never pitched a completely clean inning. He did, however, get some help from his defense, which turned a double play in four of the five innings he appeared.
Milwaukee got to McPherson again in the fifth.
Jean Segura hit a double off the wall in center to lead off the inning and took third when McPherson balked. Estrada singled down the right-field line to score Segura and extend the lead to 2-0.
The Brewers eventually loaded the bases with one out, but the Pirates turned a nifty double play. Aramis Ramirez hit a weak grounder to reliever Chris Resop, who turned a 1-2-3 double play to end the inning.
Estrada was his sharpest while the Brewers padded their lead, retiring 10 consecutive batters between the fourth and seventh innings.
Jeff Karstens made his bullpen debut this season, allowing one earned run and three hits in three innings, striking out two.
It was his 16th appearance this season, but his first in relief.
The Brewers added an insurance run off Karstens in the seventh.
Segura led off with a triple, lacing a line drive that snuck under McCutchen's glove in center.
Estrada followed with a sharp grounder that second baseman Brock Holt was unable to corral. Estrada reached first on the error as Segura scored to make it 3-0.pirates
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino. First Published September 20, 2012 4:00 AM