When the Pirates opened this week's series against the Padres, they were locked in a tie with the Cardinals for the top spot in the National League Central and were hoping to take over sole possession of first place during the four-game home set.
Now, entering Thursday's finale, the Pirates simply hope to get one win.
After San Diego won the first two games of the series, Pittsburgh appeared to be back on track through eight innings on Wednesday. However, a two-run top of the ninth gave the Padres a 3-2 lead and eventually their fourth consecutive win.
Although the Pirates are still just two games behind the Cardinals in the battle for the NL Central title, the third-place Reds are hot on their heels. And with a three-game series against Cincinnati beginning Friday, there's little room for error.
Looking to avoid the sweep, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle will turn to Gerrit Cole, who will hope to continue what has been the best month of his rookie season. The 23-year-old right-hander has gone 2-0 with a 1.35 ERA in three September starts, giving up no more than five hits and going at least six innings in each outing.
Cole was dominant for seven innings on Saturday, allowing one earned run and striking out seven in a 2-1 win over the Cubs. He also showed the ability to escape trouble, when he worked out of a one-out jam with runners on second and third in the seventh inning.
"It's about bending and not breaking, and it's about giving up a few hits and putting your foot down," Cole said. "You've just got to be tough out there, because you're not going to be perfect. You've just got to keep rolling with the punches and know when to duck and know when to punch back."
The Padres, whose postseason hopes faded long ago, will counter with right-hander Ian Kennedy. In his most recent start, Kennedy gave up two homers and three runs in six innings en route to a no-decision against the Braves.
The home runs were not a new problem for Kennedy, who came to San Diego from Arizona at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Entering his 30th start of the season, Kennedy has given up 25 homers on the year, which is tied for the second most among all NL starters.
Thursday will mark Kennedy's second start against the Pirates this season, and he will hope for a repeat performance, as he limited Pittsburgh to four hits and three walks in seven shutout innings on Aug. 21.
"We feel as though Ian brings stability and a presence to our rotation that we needed," Padres manager Bud Black said after that start.
Pirates: Martin expected to sit out finale
After sitting out Wednesday's win over the Padres, Russell Martin isn't expected to return to the lineup on Thursday.
Martin hasn't missed two straight starts since early May, but with his average dropping and a pivotal series against the Reds looming, Hurdle wanted to give his catcher as much rest as possible.
"I want him ready for Cincinnati," Hurdle said. "No doubt, the grind behind the plate is challenging him in the batter's box. I want to give him the appropriate rest he needs to get back in balance."
Since he was batting .257 on Aug. 10, Martin's average has been on a steady decline, capped by an 0-for-4 effort on Tuesday that dropped his season mark to .229. In 12 games (44 plate appearances) this month, Martin has just four hits, one of which was a homer, and an RBI.
Despite his offensive struggles, Martin still provides plenty of value when he's in the game, according to Hurdle.
"On the average he's blocked 8-10 pitches a night, since Opening Day. The job he has done behind the plate has been a difference maker," Hurdle said. "It's hard to find another catcher who does as much dirt work as he's done. His work on dirt balls is so far ahead of everyone I've ever seen."
Padres: Alonso feels pain day after taking swings
Padres first baseman Yonder Alonso won't be in action on Thursday against the Pirates, but he hopes to take another shot at hitting after his last attempt left him in some pain.
Alonso injured his right hand on Aug. 30 and hasn't returned since. After an MRI exam found an inflamed tendon on Sept. 3, Alonso received an injection and eventually took some swings in the cage and hit off a tee on Monday.
"It was a bit sore the next day," Alonso said. "I've still got a little lump on my hand and swelling, so it's just a matter of letting it cool down for a little and continue the process again."
The Padres have just 11 games left to play, but Alonso hopes to be back before the season ends.
"It's been a very frustrating couple of weeks," he said. "Obviously, with the injury, but those are things you can't dwell on, you've got to think about the positive and the positive notes. I'm still trying to come back and I'm still trying to swing and it's not a shutdown season. I'm just going to continue to fight it."
• Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen has notched 28 multihit performances in 58 games played since the All-Star break.
• A loss Thursday would give the Pirates their second four-game losing streak of September after dropping four in a row on just three occasions prior to that this season.
• The Padres are looking for their first four-game series sweep of the season.
Jeremy. Warnemuende is an associate reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.