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Bucs sweep: Crew's Pitt stop shakes up race

Pirates 3 games behind 1st-place Brewers; Cubs in 2nd, 1 game back
MLB.com

PITTSBURGH -- While the Brewers came out of the All-Star break holding a solid lead in the National League Central, the Pirates faced a steep uphill climb. Less than a week later, the division's balance of power has shifted. Pittsburgh finished off a four-game sweep of Milwaukee on Thursday afternoon, crawling back to .500 with a 4-2 win at PNC Park.

The Brewers' 5 1/2-game lead in the NL Central standings has evaporated to just one game over the Cubs, who reeled off six straight wins to begin the second half. Trailing by seven games at the break, the Bucs have won a season-high five straight games -- and 11 of their last 13 -- to pull within three games of the Crew. For the first time since April 16, Pittsburgh does not have a losing record.

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PITTSBURGH -- While the Brewers came out of the All-Star break holding a solid lead in the National League Central, the Pirates faced a steep uphill climb. Less than a week later, the division's balance of power has shifted. Pittsburgh finished off a four-game sweep of Milwaukee on Thursday afternoon, crawling back to .500 with a 4-2 win at PNC Park.

The Brewers' 5 1/2-game lead in the NL Central standings has evaporated to just one game over the Cubs, who reeled off six straight wins to begin the second half. Trailing by seven games at the break, the Bucs have won a season-high five straight games -- and 11 of their last 13 -- to pull within three games of the Crew. For the first time since April 16, Pittsburgh does not have a losing record.

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"You're never out of it, man. It's the game. It's the way that it goes," said Andrew McCutchen, whose team is now an NL Central-best 34-26 since May 13. "I was hitting .200 not too long ago. You just never know. You have to keep pushing, keep going, moving forward, believing in each other."

Central, hark! Here come red-hot Pirates

Video: MIL@PIT: McCutchen bloops an RBI single to right

After the Brewers took a 2-1 lead in the fourth, Gregory Polanco tied the game with a solo shot to center. Josh Harrison and McCutchen singled home runs in the fifth to give Pittsburgh a lead. Jameson Taillon struck out eight in 5 1/3 innings, and a bullpen that's been lights-out of late slammed the door from there. Felipe Rivero recorded the final three outs, wrapping up the Bucs' first four-game sweep at PNC Park since July 29-31, 2013.

Video: MIL@PIT: Taillon strikes out eight in 5 1/3 innings

"Their mindset is just to continue to chop wood and carry water, play one game at a time," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We've had different people show up. We had another crew of different guys showing up today."

Pirates catcher Chris Stewart, who hadn't played in the second half until Thursday, went 3-for-3 with a run and an RBI and threw out a runner in the seventh. Thursday's win followed the script that led to Pirates' 2013-15 success and this 6-1 homestand against the Cardinals and Brewers: quality starting pitching, timely hitting and a lock-down bullpen.

Video: MIL@PIT: Stewart discusses his three-hit game

"We know we're capable of that. It's just a matter of keeping up doing it throughout the season," Stewart said. "We know if we're playing our type of ballgame throughout the rest of the season, we're going to be at the top of the division."

Brewers starter Jimmy Nelson took the loss, allowing all four runs over five innings. All of Milwaukee's offense came in the fourth, when Brett Phillips and Orlando Arcia notched RBIs on a double and groundout, respectively. The loss was the Brewers' fifth in a row, matching their longest skid of the season (May 21-26).

Crew confident amid skid as rivals gain steam

Video: MIL@PIT: Nelson fans Moroff with nasty pitch

"I thought [Nelson] pitched beautifully," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "Give them credit. They also pitched well. Their bullpen was really tough on us. Their starters bent a couple [of] innings, but we didn't get that big inning that really kind of gave us a big lead ever."

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Applying pressure: All week, the Pirates have talked about being aggressive on the basepaths, hoping to pressure the Brewers -- particularly their outfielders -- into throwing mistakes. It paid off in the fifth. After hitting a single and advancing to second on a sacrifice bunt, Stewart scored the go-ahead run from second on Harrison's single to right. When right fielder Domingo Santana overthrew the cutoff man, Harrison took second. That proved to be valuable when McCutchen swatted another single to right, driving in Harrison to pad Pittsburgh's lead.

"I wouldn't say being overly aggressive. I think we want to be in the right position to take that extra step," Stewart said. "I knew there was two outs, so I'm getting an extra couple steps off second base, going on the crack of the bat. We focus on those types of things. … Small things like that add up throughout the season and can make a difference in ballgames."

Video: MIL@PIT: Harrison lines an RBI single to right

What a relief: Taillon had thrown 102 pitches when he returned to the mound to start the sixth inning. Hurdle pushed Taillon to a professional career-high 116 pitches before pulling Taillon following Manny Pina's one-out double to center. With the tying run at the plate, veteran lefty Wade LeBlanc struck out pinch-hitter Keon Broxton, walked Arcia and got pinch-hitter Ryan Braun to fly out to right field, escaping the inning unscathed.

QUOTABLE
"I think it's another mile marker on the way. You've got to play better than .500. Nobody's won a division playing under .500. It's been a slight incline, a constant incline as you head forward. There will be no catching our breath or, 'Ah, we've made it.' We haven't made it. We're heading in the right direction. We're hunting the good stuff. We're playing better baseball." -- Hurdle, on returning to .500

"I mean, we're still in first place. You're not going to win every single game, you're not going to win every single series. But there's a lot of games left to be played and we know what we're capable of. It doesn't make us question our ability by any means. We're all still just as confident, and we know what we can do. -- Nelson, on the mood in the Brewers' clubhouse

Video: MIL@PIT: Aguilar, Nelson combine to nab Marte

SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Polanco tied the game, 2-2, with a solo shot to center in the fourth inning. Polanco's ninth homer of the season traveled a projected 420 feet with an exit velocity of 104.8 mph, according to Statcast™, his longest blast of the season. It was also his seventh-longest homer since Statcast™ began tracking home run distances in 2015.

Video: MIL@PIT: Polanco launches a solo shot

The Pirates have now pulled off a four-game sweep of the Brewers each of the past two years, as they did so at Miller Park last Aug. 25-28, but this was their first such sweep in Pittsburgh since 2006.

UPON FURTHER REVIEW
After slapping a two-out single to right field in the second inning, Adam Frazier attempted to steal second base with Max Moroff at the plate. Frazier was called out but immediately insisted he was safe. The Pirates challenged the ruling, which was overturned after a one-minute, 15-second review. Moroff walked, then Stewart drove in Frazier to score the Pirates' first run of the game.

Video: MIL@PIT: Frazier swipes second after challenge

The Brewers got off to a promising start in the seventh inning after Jonathan Villar singled to begin the frame. Villar, however, got caught stealing second moments later. The Brewers challenged the ruling, but after a one-minute, 20-second review, replay officials determined that Moroff made the tag before Villar got a hand on second base.

Video: MIL@PIT: Stewart nabs Villar, call confirmed

WHAT'S NEXT
Brewers: Milwaukee will begin a three-game series against the Phillies on Friday at 6:05 p.m. CT as it continue its 10-game road trip. Matt Garza will get the start. He last pitched against the Phillies on Sunday, allowing one earned run on three hits in five innings. After the start, Counsell said Garza is improving his efficiency and putting together a nice season "under the radar."

Pirates: On Friday, the Pirates will begin a nine-game, three-city West Coast road trip that will lead them up to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. The Bucs will begin the important stretch at Coors Field, where they are set to play the Rockies on Friday at 8:40 p.m. ET. Right-hander Trevor Williams, who has never started against Colorado, will be on the mound to pitch the series opener.

Watch every out-of-market regular-season game live on MLB.TV.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast.

Jonathan Toye is a reporter for MLB.com based in Pittsburgh and covered the Brewers on Thursday.