The San Diego Padres are playing the role of spoiler perfectly.
The Pittsburgh Pirates will look to avoid a four-game sweep at the hands of the red-hot Padres when they face off at PNC Park on Thursday.
This week was supposed to be a chance for Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis to all take advantage of playing teams that will not be headed to the postseason.
The Reds have, sweeping a three-game series from last-place Houston. The Cardinals have as well, taking two of their first three against last-place Colorado.
The Pirates, however, are in danger of suffering their first four-game home sweep to the Padres since Aug. 8-11, 1996.
They took a 2-1 lead Wednesday on Andrew McCutchen's two-run homer in the seventh inning only to watch Mark Melancon blow his third save as the Padres scored two in the ninth to hand Pittsburgh a 3-2 loss.
Pittsburgh (87-65), which managed three hits Wednesday and has been held to four runs in this series, has fallen two games back of St. Louis in the NL Central and holds a one-half game lead over Cincinnati for the NL's top wild-card spot. The Pirates remain six games up on Washington for a postseason berth.
"I know we can do a lot better of a job than what we're doing right now,'' McCutchen said. "We only have so many more games left. It's time to get going. We don't have time to be making it as close as it's been these past few days. We have the offense to do those things, to score runs.''
Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez are part of the offensive woes. Walker is in a 2-for-36 slump, while Alvarez is hitless in 17 at-bats.
The sputtering offense puts extra pressure on rookie Gerrit Cole (8-7, 3.33 ERA), who will look to win his third straight start.
Cole has strung together six straight quality starts, yielding a single home run. He has been particularly good in three September outings, posting a 1.35 ERA with 21 strikeouts in 20 innings.
"You never know where surprises are going to come from," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "You didn't know where he was going to be able to take you this season but his actions are speaking loud and clear."
The right-hander struck out seven Saturday, permitting a run in seven innings in a 2-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs.
The Padres (71-80) have won 11 of 15, and lead the majors with 153 strikeouts this month. Their bullpen has given up two hits over 13 scoreless innings.
Ian Kennedy (6-9, 4.85) is among the Padres faring well at the moment.
Since losing five straight decisions to end his time in Arizona, the right-hander is 3-1 with a 3.86 ERA. Kennedy held Atlanta to three runs in six innings but didn't get a decision in Friday's 4-3 win.
Kennedy, whose 25 home runs surrendered is tied for second-worst in the NL, allowed two in the Braves' three-run fourth inning.
Pittsburgh catcher Russell Martin, 4 for 40 since Sept. 2, will likely sit Thursday.
"I want him ready for Cincinnati (Friday)," Hurdle told the team's official website.
San Diego has won 14 of 15 at PNC Park and is 31-10 all-time at the ballpark.
"There is no rhythm or reason to it," manager Bud Black said. "If we knew why, we would try to bottle it and take it with us wherever we go."
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