MILWAUKEE -- The Pirates hoped that the ninth-inning battle on Sunday between their and the Brewers' best was a microcosm of a looming National League Central skirmish -- and hopefully a preview of its outcome.
Andrew McCutchen, who won his battle with Francisco Rodriguez even as the Bucs were dropping the war, just hoped to remain standing for the entire conflict.
McCutchen's solo home run on K-Rod's ninth pitch to him was merely a final note in the Pirates' 4-3 loss in Miller Park. But it also provided a convenient way for him to answer questions about how he has weathered his first week back from an avulsion rib fracture.
"I feel good enough to hit a homer in the ninth against a closer, so ... I guess that's your answer," said McCutchen, who has clearly been gearing down on the bases since spending only the minimum time on the 15-day disabled list prior to being activated on Tuesday.
"I'm good enough to play, good enough to swing," he added. "I think that's how it'll be for the rest of the season, is how I look at it. I'm able to play. That's all I need."
"There's times [the rib] might tug at him," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We've encouraged him then to take it easy. Sometimes it grabs."
McCutchen certainly grabbed attention with one out in the ninth, when he fouled off four straight two-strike pitches before pulling Rodriguez's full-count offering for his 19th homer of the season.
"He's tough," saluted the opposing manager, Ron Roenicke. "You throw good pitches to him, then he fouls them off. It gets to the point of, 'What do I have to do to get him out?' Because he doesn't miss the mistake."
"Wasn't that good to see?" Hurdle asked. "Good battle. Drew us one run closer but, at the end of the day, we didn't have many threats at all."
With their reputation as one of the Major League's best fastball-hitting teams, the Pirates would have matched up well Sunday with a fireballer.
A Fiers-baller, however, was an entirely different matter.
The Pirates' hopes for a rare Milwaukee sweep were swept away by a marvelous pitching effort by Milwaukee right-hander Mike Fiers, whose two-hit pitching for seven innings quieted the Pittsburgh offense. The Pirates fell five games behind the Brewers in the NL Central, but remained just 1 1/2 games out of the second Wild Card spot thanks to the Giants' loss to the Nationals.
As Hurdle suspected, the Bucs indeed got only one man all afternoon into scoring position: Pedro Alvarez, who walked in the second and stole second base just before Starling Marte's home run briefly tied the game at 2.
The only other hit allowed by Fiers was a Russell Martin single with two outs in the fourth.
"He used his pitches and took advantage of the strike zone," McCutchen said. "Hopefully, we get to face him again. The next time would be at home."
Fiers put the accent definitely on "pitching." Mixing a fastball that seldom tripped 90 mph on the radar gun with a much slower breaking pitch, Fiers messed up the Bucs' timing for seven innings, walking one and striking out seven.
Fiers' fastball did not top 90 mph, but it needn't to set up a curve that bent in at 72 mph.
"Downhill angle ... that's the No. 1 weapon he's got," Hurdle said of the 6-foot-2 right-hander. "He gets on top of the ball. He mixed his pitches extremely well, and stayed out of the middle of the plate."
Milwaukee proved that two-out lightning indeed can strike twice in the same place. In each of the first two innings, Pirates starter Vance Worley retired the first two men, then had to navigate five more to the third out.
The first-inning trouble began when Ryan Braun bounced a comebacker off Worley's glove for an infield single. RBI singles by Scooter Gennett and Mark Reynolds ensued.
Maybe Worley just wanted to make his teammates feel at home by giving up those two in the first. Not only did the Pirates fall behind in each game of this series, they did so quickly, with the Brewers scoring within the first two innings.
It worked, briefly, as Marte got the Bucs even with his ninth homer in the second.
In the bottom of that second, Carlos Gomez doubled with two down. RBI singles by Jonathan Lucroy and Aramis Ramirez followed.
Though nothing else showed up on the scoreboard against Worley, that remarkable pattern continued for the righty. The first 10 baserunners against him -- on nine hits and a walk -- all reached base with two outs.
"You don't see that very often -- two outs, then four hits in back-to-back innings. But it all goes back to rhythm," Hurdle said. "He found it in the third."
All told, Worley gave up a dozen hits in his tenacious 6 1/3 innings, with the one walk and five strikeouts.
Considering how they were tilting before hitting Wisconsin -- nine losses in 11 games -- the Pirates risked being cropped out of the postseason picture here.
Instead, they take renewed hopes back with them to Pittsburgh.
"We're right where we need to be," McCutchen said. "We did a good job, playing against the first-place team and taking two out of three at their place is really good. As you know, our record hasn't been that great against them."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.