PITTSBURGH -- A week ago, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington set the stage for a critical stretch heading into the All-Star break. After a brutal seven-week slump left them eight games under .500, they needed more than just an average week to maintain any hope of contending.
The Pirates responded by putting together their best week in two months, a series that was anything but average and an unforgettable first-half finale. With rain pouring down and lightning striking in the distance, Josh Bell laced a two-out double to center field in the 10th inning that sent the Pirates to a 7-6, walk-off win over the Brewers on Sunday at PNC Park.
"It was definitely a special moment," Bell said. "One that I won't forget."
The Pirates entered the All-Star break with a season-high six-game winning streak and eight victories in their final nine games. Pittsburgh got there by completing the club's first five-game sweep since September 1996 and the Majors' first five-game sweep since 2006. The Pirates are still not where they want to be, with a record of 48-49, but they have provided some reason for hope.
"It reminded us of what we did the first seven or eight weeks of the season, when we climbed to nine games over - that we can be an interesting team," Huntington said before Sunday's game. "While we've closed ground in the division, we've closed ground in the Wild Card, we've had a great week against really good teams, we need to do more and we need to continue to play this way."
It will be hard to match the way they finished the first half, though. Down by three runs, the Bucs scored once in the eighth and twice in the ninth to force extras.
Rookie Tanner Anderson gave up a run in the 10th, but the Pirates stormed back -- fittingly enough, given the inclement weather that had pitching coach Ray Searage recounting scenes from "The Natural" in the dugout.
"A really fun way to end it," manager Clint Hurdle said, "in the pouring rain."
Gregory Polanco began the rally with a one-out single to right field. The rain intensified as Colin Moran smacked a two-out single to left field off lefty reliever Dan Jennings, putting runners on the corners for Bell.
"Sometimes when the conditions get tough, it's easier to just simplify things," Moran said. "Once the rain started pouring down, you just go, 'All right, get a good pitch to hit and try to hit one.'"
After seeing Jennings miss badly with a first-pitch slider, Bell looked for a fastball. He got one on the next pitch and ripped it to the wall, over center fielder Lorenzo Cain's head. Polanco easily scored, and third-base coach Joey Cora sent Moran home. Tyler Saladino's relay throw easily beat Moran, but the ball slipped between catcher Erik Kratz's legs and Moran slid home safely.
That set off a rain-soaked celebration that carried from the field into Pittsburgh's clubhouse.
"It was crazy," Bell said. "We've got people dancing in here and music's blaring again. There's life back in here."
When the Pirates reconvene in Cincinnati on Friday, the industry's focus will shift even further toward the Trade Deadline. A week after Huntington said his "optimism has turned to realism," the Bucs still must balance the two. They remain 5 1/2 games out of a playoff spot, with a young core to build around and veterans who may be of use to contending clubs.
But if nothing else, this week proved that there is still room for optimism in Pittsburgh.
"We're playing back to the way we know how to play, the way we started the season," shortstop Jordy Mercer said. "That's what good teams do: Everybody chips in and everybody helps. We were getting back to that, and now everybody's kind of building that momentum together. That cohesiveness is really tight right now. We're having a lot of fun."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Staying alive: With a worn-down bullpen full of unavailable arms, right-hander Joe Musgrove cruised into the eighth inning with the game tied, 2-2. Musgrove loaded the bases, then, on his 106th pitch, gave up a three-run triple to Brett Phillips.
The Pirates trimmed one run off their deficit in the eighth, when Corey Dickerson -- who homered in the third inning -- doubled and scored on a single by Starling Marte. Mercer's double-play grounder with the bases loaded in the ninth brought them within a run but also within an out of losing.
Up came pinch-hitter David Freese. The veteran infielder crushed Knebel's 1-2 fastball off the top of the right-field wall, driving in Bell to tie the game.
"What a big swing from David," Hurdle said. "He's ready. He stays in the game."
The Yankees finished the last five-game sweep in the Majors, taking five games from the Red Sox on Aug. 18-21, 2006. The Pirates last did it on Sept. 12-15, 1996, in San Francisco.
HE SAID IT
"I think we knew that going in. It was just a matter of when we were going to start playing well. Everybody goes through tough stretches throughout the course of the year. We've had ours, it seems like. Hopefully, it's behind us, and we can just continue to play well."--Mercer, on recent stretch of games
"I got thrown out the other day, so in my mind, I'm just like, 'Man, find a way to get a couple steps faster.' I don't know what happened. I couldn't see. Luckily, the throw got away, and I got in."--Moran, on scoring the winning run
The Pirates will begin the second half of the season against the Reds on Friday at Great American Ball Park. Right-hander Jameson Taillon (6-7, 3.91 ERA) will take the mound for Pittsburgh after going 4-3 with a 3.29 ERA over his last nine starts. Right-hander Tyler Mahle (7-7, 4.02) will start for the Reds at 7:10 p.m. ET.