PITTSBURGH -- This was the CliffsNotes version of the Pirates' entire season: start slow, surge in the middle, fade at the end.If you saw Thursday's game at PNC Park, you saw all 149 of them. With left-hander Wandy Rodriguez tendering his poorest and briefest of 10 starts for Pittsburgh, the Pirates fell into an early four-run hole to the Brewers, roared back out of it to take a three-run lead into the eighth -- then had their bullpen give it all back for a crushing 9-7 defeat. The loss dropped the Pirates to 5 1/2 games behind the Cardinals for the second National League Wild Card. It also suppressed the Bucs (74-75) one game south of .500, with the countdown at 13 games. The Pirates have their own magic number: 82, the number of wins that would end 19 seasons of losing. It was a game in which none of manager Clint Hurdle's moves worked out, and he was the first to admit that. At every key juncture, he made the sensible, thought-out decision, only to have it backfire. Hurdle wanted Jason Grilli to deal with the heart of the Brewers' order in the seventh, thus Chad Qualls got the setup call in the eighth. Qualls was asked asked to preserve at least some of a 7-4 lead. "Grilli pitched against the leverage part of their lineup in the seventh," Hurdle said. "I felt the job Qualls has done against right-handed hitters since he's been here [spoke for itself]. Besides -- Qualls is the guy who has pitched more eighth innings [255 of 593 prior career appearances] than anyone in that bullpen." Qualls got into instant trouble on leadoff singles by Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura, the right-handed-hitting Nos. 7 and 8 men in the Milwaukee lineup. He retired pinch-hitter Nyjer Morgan for one out but was chased by Norichika Aoki's run-scoring double off the Clemente Wall. Morgan and Aoki both hit lefty, and southpaws Hisanori Takahashi and Justin Wilson remained in the Pittsburgh bullpen. "The last time Takahashi faced these guys," Hurdle said, "he did not fare well [four runs in one inning on Aug. 31]. When we've matched up Wilson with left-handers with runners in scoring position, that didn't go well [the rookie gave up a two-run single to David DeJesus in the eighth inning of Sunday's 13-9 loss in Chicago]. "So I went with the experienced guys." Chris Resop entered and was greeted by Rickie Weeks' game-tying two-run triple. Two batters later, Aramis Ramirez's single scored Weeks, snapping the brief 7-7 tie. Among the highlights whitewashed by the numbing end were Andrew McCutchen's three-run homer in the fourth, his 30th of the year, and a go-ahead solo homer in the sixth by rejuvenated Clint Barmes, capping his three-hit late afternoon. The three-run homer increased McCutchen's season total to 92 RBIs, a new personal high. His nine previous homers -- reverting to the first series after the All-Star break -- had all been solo shots. Two innings later, McCutchen displayed the other side of his game, streaking in to make a sliding catch of Ramirez's bid for a hit, a one-out liner to right-center with the potential lead run on second. The Bucs had caught the Brewers at 4 in the previous inning, getting only that one run -- on pinch-hitter Alex Presley's RBI fielder's choice -- after loading the bases with none out. Hurdle sacrificed his starting pitcher for that rally. Rodriguez had settled down considerably after the long first inning, facing only one batter over the minimum across the next three. However, when righty reliever Brandon Kintzler followed leadoff singles by Pedro Alvarez and Barmes with a walk of Barajas, Rodriguez knew what was coming. "In that situation, with the bases loaded ... yeah, it's the move," Rodriguez said. "We had scored one run in 24 innings until the Andrew home run," Hurdle reasoned. "I thought it was a good time to roll the dice and build another big inning. I wanted to send a hitter up there, look for something in the gap, open things up. "At his pitch count [79 through four], Wandy maybe had two more innings in him. Wandy hits, hits into a double play ... that would not have been what we're looking for." Yet here is the irony: Say Rodriguez does hit into that double play; that one run scores regardless, and the two more innings left in him would have deferred the bullpen relays, to where Grilli pitches the eighth and Joel Hanrahan perhaps has a lead to protect in the ninth. The right calls, the wrong payoffs. "We worked very hard to get on top, and weren't able to finish it off," Hurdle summarized. "We've got to push through it." Given the team's current state, the Pirates could not have gotten off to a worse start than what Rodriguez gave them. Nine pitches in, Rodriguez trailed, 1-0: Aoki singled, followed by a steal of second. Aoki took third on catcher Rod Barajas' throwing error, Weeks followed with a walk and Ryan Braun hit into an RBI force play. Two pitches later, it was 3-0, with Ramirez depositing it over the center-field fence for his 25th homer of the year. Actually, Ramirez deposited it atop the center-field fence, then it hopped over, but the damage was the same. By pulling the Pirates within one, McCutchen's blow threatened to magnify the significance of an apparent missed call by plate umpire Chad Fairchild that had given Milwaukee a 4-0 lead in the third.
After doubling to lead off the inning, Ramirez moved to third on Corey Hart's fly and tagged up on another fly, to left, by Jonathan Lucroy. Starling Marte unleashed a signature throw gloved by Barajas as he edged his left foot to cut off the path to the plate. Ramirez did not slide and, with Barajas' foot in the way, never appeared to touch home. Still, Fairchild called him safe.
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.