MILWAUKEE -- After his team's 11-6 loss to Milwaukee yesterday, Pirates manager John Russell looked ahead to the team's seven-game homestand that takes it to the All-Star break.
"We need to try to finish strong before the break," Russell said. "It's a big homestand. We need to win some games so we don't dig ourselves a hole."
The shovels might already be in use.
- Game: Houston Astros vs. Pirates, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP Runelvys Hernandez (0-2, 5.40) vs. LHP Phil Dumatrait (3-4, 4.66).
- Key matchup: Dumatrait vs. rust. He hasn't pitched since June 19. Before two sub-par starts before going on the disabled list, Dumatrait allowed only five earned runs in 24 1/3 innings over four starts.
- Of note: Hernandez succeeds the summarily released Shawn Chacon in the Houston rotation. He pitched five innings in each of his first two starts since joining the Astros.
Yesterday's loss, which gave the surging Brewers a three-game sweep, dropped the Pirates to 40-47. They're in last place in the National League Central -- 12 games behind first-place Chicago and 8 1/2 games behind wild-card leader St. Louis.
It's increasingly apparent this team isn't going to contend for anything this season -- perhaps including even a .500 record.
"The one thing this club does is battle," general manager Neal Huntington said.
And it did yesterday.
Zach Duke spotted the Brewers a 4-0 lead in the first inning, but the Pirates rallied against equally ineffective Milwaukee starter Jeff Suppan to take a 6-4 lead in the top of the third.
However, Duke didn't survive the bottom of the third, and the free-swinging Brewers poured across a total of six runs in the third and fourth to take control.
That doomed the Pirates to a 2-4 trip that left them with a road record of 15-28.
And probably leaves these cellar-dwellers in the position of sellers between now and the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline.
"The reality is that the gap is growing," Huntington said. "And the injuries we've sustained and some performance issues [make] our odds longer and longer.
"It's a situation where we'll listen aggressively as [the deadline] nears. But the best thing is, we don't have to make a move by then. We don't have financial restrictions. We don't have to make trades right now. If there aren't deals [there] right now, we don't have to make them."
Huntington certainly doesn't have to cave in on any trade proposals just to make a deal. If the Pirates aren't going to get back the top-tier prospects they'll seek in any deal, there won't be a deal.
Not that any trades seem on the horizon at this point.
"Our phone is getting a little bit busier, but nothing is imminent," Huntington said.
Yesterday's loss ended an extremely busy week for the team.
The trip began in Cincinnati last Monday with the Pirates starting pitcher batting eighth instead of the customary ninth.
It continued with closer Matt Capps blowing saves in back-to-back games -- and then going on the disabled list with a shoulder problem that will keep him out until early September.
There was interest in shortstop Jack Wilson from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Pirates Thursday designated for assignment Bryan Bullington -- the top overall pick in the 2002 draft.
And on Saturday, the team sent left-hander Tom Gorzelanny, a 14-game winner last season, to Class AAA Indianapolis to try to get his teetering act together.
"This is life as a baseball team," Doug Mientkiewicz said. "You have stuff that happens. You have things the manager wants to try and issues you have to deal with.
"Trust me, this is as docile as it gets. You go somewhere else and this is an everyday occurrence. This is nothing. This is a cakewalk."
Yesterday was a cakewalk for the Brewers after the early skirmishing.
Their bullpen held the Pirates to three hits over the final six innings. Meanwhile, the Brewers pounded Pirates pitching for 12 extra-base hits -- setting a club record for most extra-base hits in a nine-inning game.
"Everything they hit fell in," Russell said. "We just couldn't stop the bleeding. They were very aggressive. Zach was missing down in the zone and when he elevated it some, they took advantage."
"This one's on me," said Duke, who remains winless in 13 road starts since his previous road victory May 27, 2007, in Cincinnati. "I allowed them to get settled in and take good hacks."
None more so than shortstop J.J. Hardy, who had two home runs, a double and drove in four runs. In his past 18 games, Hardy is hitting .446 with eight home runs and 20 RBIs.
Duke's uncharacteristic early exit marked the fourth time on the trip a Pirates starter didn't finish the sixth. In those four games, the starters allowed a total of 29 hits and 20 runs (18 earned) in just 14 1/3 innings.
The Pirates have lost 11 of their past 12 at Miller Park.
With their 28th victory in 41 home games, moved 10 games over .500 for the first time this season and looked forward to today when they might learn they've acquired Cleveland pitcher C.C. Sabathia.
In other words, there are no shovels being passed out at Miller Park.
Paul Meyer can be reached at 412-263-1144. First Published July 7, 2008 4:00 AM