For the Pirates, Andrew McCutchen's return from a fractured rib in his left side won't be coming a moment too soon.
The reigning National League MVP and four-time All-Star is back in the lineup for Tuesday's game against the Braves at PNC Park, on the first day when he was eligible to be activated from the 15-day disabled list.
"Unless there's some type of setback, we feel optimistic that he could very well rejoin us [Tuesday]," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Pittsburgh could certainly use a boost. Atlanta sent the Bucs to their sixth straight loss Monday night in the series opener, leaving them six games behind the NL Central-leading Brewers and two games back of a Wild Card spot. Monday's 7-3 loss also gave the Pirates a 5-9 mark since McCutchen got hurt.
The Braves, on the other hand, won their fourth straight game and are a game back in the Wild Card standings. They still trail Washington by six games in the NL East, and that's the race Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez wants his team focused on.
"I think it's just easier to keep our sights on that instead of the first Wild Card or second Wild Card," Gonzalez said. "With the other scenarios, you have so many other teams."
On Tuesday, Pittsburgh left-hander Francisco Liriano (3-9, 3.78 ERA) will face off against Atlanta righty Aaron Harang (9-7, 3.51 ERA).
Liriano is coming off a tough loss to the Tigers after throwing six innings of two-run baseball on Thursday. That same day, Harang also took a loss in his last start, giving up five runs in 4 1/3 innings against the Dodgers.
Pirates: Alvarez makes debut start at first base
Pedro Alvarez had never played first base in his career until the club asked him to take ground balls there less than two weeks ago. On Monday, the lifelong third baseman made his first start across the diamond.
Alvarez's arm has been among the most unreliable in the Majors. He leads all players with 25 errors this season, 24 of which are throwing errors. The latest came Sunday when he floated a ball over the head of catcher Russell Martin while trying to cut a run off at home.
In the past month, Hurdle has cut down Alvarez's playing time, whether replacing him with a defensive substitution later in games or by not starting him. Hurdle has had fewer options of late, however, due to injured infielders.
Alvarez was errorless in the field Monday and went 0-for-4 with a strikeout.
Braves: Russell's reverse splits stun opponent
When A's right-handed slugger Josh Donaldson reached first base after hitting a single off James Russell on Sunday night, he turned to Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman and said, "I think that's the first time anyone has brought a lefty in to face me."
Since Russell was acquired from the Cubs on July 31, it has been well documented that he is not a traditional left-handed reliever. Though he had success against left-handed hitters in previous years, he has struggled against them this season and proven quite successful against right-handed hitters.
Russell has limited right-handed hitters to a .114 (8-for-70) batting average and .241 on-base percentage in 53 games this season. Left-handed batters have hit .324 (23-for-71) with a .385 OBP against him.
"We had to come up with something," Gonzalez said. "That's one of those situations where you look at the numbers and you go, OK, here they are, put [yourself] on the line there on national TV. ... It's one of those things that was unconventional, but the only thing we had to go on was the numbers from the splits."
• The Pirates moved infielder Clint Barmes' rehab to Indianapolis on Monday night, where he played seven innings and went 0-for-3 for the Triple-A affiliate. Barmes (groin) has been sidelined since July 6 and played two games at Double-A over the weekend, each appearance lasting five innings.
• After starting all three games this past weekend, Evan Gattis was given a chance to rest Monday as he enjoyed his 28th birthday. Gattis has batted .235 with a .666 OPS since returning from the back ailment that sidelined him during the first three weeks of July.
David Adler is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.