Sputtering Pirates aim to salvage set with Padres

It's beginning to get interesting in the National League Central race and the Pittsburgh Pirates are playing themselves out of a chance for a division title.

The Pirates aim to get back in the hunt when they close out a four-game series Thursday afternoon versus the San Diego Padres at PNC Park. The Pirates have lost the first three meetings with the Padres and are now two games behind St. Louis for the division lead.

Pittsburgh, though, is percentage points ahead of the Cincinnati Reds for the first wild card spot, while the Reds are just 2 1/2 games behind the Cardinals in the division.

In Wednesday's 3-2 loss to the Padres, Pirates closer Mark Melancon allowed consecutive RBI singles to Logan Forsythe and Rene Rivera in the ninth inning to suffer the loss. Pirates starter Charlie Morton struck out a career-high nine batters over eight innings of work in the no-decision and Andrew McCutchen belted a two-run homer.

"When you're up, you try not to get to high, you enjoy the moment," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "When things don't work your way, you gotta be steadfast and keep plowing."

The Cardinals defeated Colorado to take a two-game lead in the NL Central, while the Pirates lost for the fourth time in six tries. Pittsburgh begins another important series this weekend with the Reds coming to town.

Pittsburgh has won each of Gerrit Cole's last three starts and he takes the mound Thursday afternoon. Cole threw seven shutout innings in a win at Texas on Sept. 9 and followed that with another seven-inning effort in Saturday's 2-1 win over the Chicago Cubs.

Cole limited the visiting Cubs to a run and five hits to push his record to 8-7 in 17 starts, while lowering his ERA to 3.33. The rookie right-hander is 5-5 in 11 home starts and faced the Padres in a 2-1 loss at Petco Park on Aug. 21, when he suffered a hard-luck defeat for allowing both runs in six innings.

San Diego is out of the playoff picture, but has been playing solid baseball as of late with four straight wins and a 6-3 mark on a 10-game road trip.

Padres starter Tyson Ross pitched seven strong innings for San Diego and allowed two runs with seven strikeouts. Huston Street pitched a perfect ninth for his 31st save of the year and Dale Thayer came on with one out in the eighth to earn the win.

"Great win," said Black. "Tyson pitched great. He didn't deserve to lose that game, so it's fitting that he didn't. A lot of players contributed there in the end, it was great."

The Padres will host Los Angeles and Arizona on their upcoming homestand.

Ian Kennedy will make his ninth start in a Padres uniform Thursday and he owns a 3-1 mark to go along with a 3.86 ERA over his first eight starts with his new club. Acquired from Arizona in the middle of the summer, Kennedy, who was 3-8 in 21 starts with the D'backs, has posted back-to-back no-decisions.

Kennedy allowed three runs and five hits in six innings of a 4-3 victory at Atlanta on Friday and the Padres have won each of the right-hander's last three trips to the mound. Kennedy has struggled on the road this season, going 1-5 in 16 starts, and is 2-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career starts against the Pirates.

San Diego lost a three-game series versus the Pirates from Aug. 19-21 and went 5-1 against Pittsburgh last season.