Bucs end milestone month on sour note
Despite loss, club records second 17-win month in 15 years
MILWAUKEE -- Looking for wins to serve as bookends for one of the best months the Pirates have had in years, the Bucs began a road tour on Friday that will take them through the midst of the National League Central playoff race.
Manager Jim Tracy had talked earlier in the week about wanting to see his players perform in playoff-like atmospheres, and they got their first taste of one on Friday.
Consider Friday a test run then, as the Pirates fell just short against the Brewers, losing the series opener, 3-2, in front of 35,689 at Miller Park.
Despite the loss, however, this was a month to remember. The 17 wins the Pirates picked up marked just the second time in 15 seasons that the club had recorded that many victories in a month.
Then there was the home run record the club set, which was pushed to 45 when Adam LaRoche hit a solo shot in the fourth to give the Pirates their first run of the night off Yovani Gallardo. They scored runs in droves and put together winning streaks of at least two games five different times.
"It's been very enjoyable, let's put it that way," Tracy said of August. "I'd like to think there's more to come. I think that we are doing some of the things we were hopeful of when I first sat down in this chair to begin the season a year ago."
The Pirates seemed poised to push that win total to 18, but credit Gallardo with making that the goal for next month instead. The game ball in this one belonged to the Milwaukee rookie starter, who limited the Pirates to two runs in his seven innings of work, and who stepped up just as the Pirates appeared poised to, at worse, tie up the game against him in the seventh.
"He found a little bit different gear," Tracy said of Gallardo's seventh-inning hold. "He went to a little bit different level for those two outs right there."
The scene that inning looked something like this. It started with the Pirates down 3-1, a deficit they quickly sawed in half with Ronny Paulino's RBI double. With runners on second and third, one out and Jack Wilson at bat, Brewers manager Ned Yost made a visit to talk with Gallardo.
In the meantime, looming in the on-deck circle was pinch-hitter Josh Phelps, who had 11 hits in his past 17 at-bats. He was the hitter the Pirates wanted up in the situation. No question.
And that's who they would get. Yost, not budging at the threat, decided to walk Wilson and take his chances with Phelps.
"Wilson doesn't really walk, so trying to pitch around him is kind of a tough thing to do, and he doesn't strike out," Yost said afterward. "So what we were going to do is walk Wilson, load the bases and try to get the double play."
The double play part of the plan never came to fruition. Gallardo never let it.
Phelps struck out on a called third strike. Nate McLouth followed with a swinging strikeout to end the inning.
"To have the opportunity to send the guy we sent to the plate, we felt like we were in a pretty good position," Tracy said, referring to Phelps. "Those might have been the best pitches [Gallardo] threw during the course of the seven innings that he was out there."
That's saying a lot, considering Gallardo limited the Pirates to just two hits prior to that seventh. With a perfect mixture of his fastball, slider and curveball all night, Gallardo looked as dominant against Pittsburgh as Cincinnati's Aaron Harang did on Wednesday.
Credit Pittsburgh starter Tony Armas with keeping the game close, though that's not to say he didn't labor through much of his six innings of work. He limited the Brewers to just one first-inning run, despite needing 28 pitches to finish the inning. He would throw another 26 in the third, but again minimized the damage to one run.
"The first inning I tried to be perfect," said Armas, who dropped to 2-5 with the loss. "But then I think I got better and attacked the hitters."
It showed. Armas retired 10 of the final 11 hitters he faced. However, the one he didn't made all the difference. In addition to his gutsy performance on the mound, Gallardo tagged Armas for a solo home run in the fourth that accounted for Milwaukee's third and eventual winning run of the game.
"I thought he was going to whiff one pitch," said Armas, who gave Gallardo a high and centered fastball to hit with a 1-0 count.
But considering much of the way this season has gone for Armas, the Pirates couldn't have asked much more from him. The right-hander lasted through six innings for the first time in four starts. And in only one other start this year did Armas allow fewer than the four hits he gave up on Friday.
"Tony gave us a start with a chance to win, and we were in position to possibly do that," Tracy said. "You can't ask for much more."
Nor could you have asked more from the team this month. LaRoche may have put it best afterward when he said: "I think it gives us a little bit of hope going into the last month of the season and not just for the standings as far as where we finish in the division, but for us as a team and building for next year. [It's] knowing what we're capable of doing."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.