Brewers-Pirates Preview

The Associated Press

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a losing record in August, an extended run of mediocrity that finally cost them their grip on first place earlier this week.

Gerrit Cole can help them get it back ahead of the team's most significant series in two decades.

After some extra rest, the rookie right-hander looks to pitch the Pirates back into a share of the NL Central lead Thursday night against the visiting Milwaukee Brewers.

The Pirates (77-55) moved ahead of St. Louis in the division with a doubleheader sweep of the Cardinals on July 30, and stayed on top until falling one-half game behind on an off day Monday. That deficit grew to 1 1/2 games with Tuesday's 7-6 loss to Milwaukee and a St. Louis win, but they bounced back and improved to 12-13 in August with a 7-1 win Wednesday while the Cardinals lost 10-0.

Newly acquired Marlon Byrd, who came over from the 59-72 Mets a day earlier along with catcher John Buck, hit a three-run homer in his Pirates debut.

"We were battling over there in New York but at the end we just couldn't put it together,'' Byrd said. "For a chance to play in the playoffs with a great team in a great city, I'm just fortunate.''

After Thursday's finale against the Brewers (58-74), Pittsburgh will play six of its next nine versus St. Louis - starting with three at PNC Park on Friday - as it pursues its first winning record and playoff berth since 1992.

With the Cardinals idle Thursday, Cole (6-6, 3.81 ERA) will get a chance to send the Pirates into their weekend series in a first-place tie.

Cole has had seven days to rest since his last start, when he gave up two runs and a season-high 10 hits over six innings in a 2-1 loss at San Diego on Aug. 21. With the former No. 1 overall pick having thrown 146 total innings between Triple-A and the majors - 14 more than he did in 2012 - the Pirates are being cautious with his workload down the stretch.

Aside from simply being concerned with Cole's health, giving him some extra rest has proven beneficial. Cole is 4-0 with a 2.84 ERA in four starts on six-plus days' rest, and 2-6 with a 4.27 ERA in nine outings with five days or fewer between starts.

Working on six days' rest against the Brewers on June 28, Cole gave up three first-inning runs but followed with five scoreless in a 10-3 win.

Milwaukee counters with Yovani Gallardo (9-9, 4.61), who gets his first look at someone other than Cincinnati since returning from the disabled list. The right-hander held the Reds scoreless for 6 1-3 innings in a 2-0 win in his first start back from a strained hamstring on Aug. 17, then gave up three runs over six before the Brewers won 6-4 in Cincinnati on Friday.

"I felt good," Gallardo told the team's official website. "I thought I was able to keep the ball down in the zone and get out of some jams whenever I needed to."

He's felt plenty comfortable at PNC Park, going 4-2 with a 1.69 ERA in seven career starts. The last time Gallardo saw the Pirates, however, he only lasted four innings while giving up four runs in a 5-4 home loss May 26.

Gallardo almost certainly will see Pedro Alvarez in the lineup, and Pittsburgh's third baseman is 10 for his last 21 with four homers against Milwaukee righties - including a solo shot off Kyle Lohse on Tuesday.

Alvarez hasn't figured out Gallardo, though, going 1 for 17 with eight strikeouts in their matchups.

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