PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates began their longest homestand of the season sitting seven games below .500 but only 5 1/2 games out of first place in the National league Central. They ended it Sunday with a 7-1 loss to the Cubs, still seven games below .500 and now six games behind the division-leading Brewers.
With an opportunity to make a run in a surprisingly close division race, Pittsburgh went 5-5 over the last 11 days. The season is not yet halfway over -- Sunday was the Bucs' 69th game -- but the split effectively encapsulates their inability to gain any ground.
Their longest winning streak of the season came on this homestand, four straight victories against the Marlins and Rockies, but that momentum was short-lived as they dropped three of the next four games, including Sunday's series finale against the Cubs.
"I think we're still playing good ball. Our pitching and our offense is jelling at times," shortstop Jordy Mercer said. "We just need to consistently do it, consistently put it together each and every game."
Sunday's game escaped the Pirates early. Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras teamed up to score a run off Jameson Taillon in the first, and Contreras doubled home two more runs in the third. The Pirates managed only two hits in six innings against veteran right-hander John Lackey: David Freese's second-inning single and Mercer's fifth-inning homer.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this stretch for the Pirates has been the games that slipped through their fingers. Before this homestand began, Tony Watson gave up a ninth-inning lead on back-to-back nights in Baltimore. The Pirates turned to Juan Nicasio in the ninth on Friday, and he coughed up a one-run lead; three outs away from a 4-3 win, the Bucs lost, 9-5.
Flip those three games in the Pirates' direction instead, and they would be 8-4 over their last 12 games, not 5-7. Pittsburgh would be 34-35 on the year, battling with Chicago in pursuit Milwaukee, not 31-38 and sandwiched in the standings between St. Louis and Cincinnati.
"We've got to go play the game. They're in a hunt. We're in a hunt," manager Clint Hurdle said. "You want to win a series. We put ourselves in position to win the first game. We didn't. One gets away, it makes it tough."
What makes this stretch even more vexing? After a sluggish start, the Pirates' bats have finally come to life. Andrew McCutchen and Mercer have emerged from lengthy slumps. Josh Harrison continues to thrive near the top of the order. Elias Diaz is proving himself capable of handling Major League pitching while at and behind the plate.
The Bucs are hitting .281/.354/.440 as a team and averaging 5.13 runs per game in 15 games this month. But they have been held back by short starts, bullpen blowups and, above all, inconsistency.
On the final day of the U.S. Open golf tournament, the Pirates donned golf shirts and slacks and boarded a flight bound for Milwaukee. Instead of dwelling on the disappointing stretch behind them, Hurdle looked ahead.
"You keep things simple as far as showing up, playing the game and doing everything you can to win the game today. We lost this series," Hurdle said. "We've got to get on that plane and go get Milwaukee, figure something out there. There is a lot of season to play. However, we need to just continue to focus on playing better tomorrow."