For the first time in 15 years, the Pittsburgh Pirates enter September within striking distance of the playoffs.
To get to the postseason, they'll need their MVP-candidate center fielder and the anchor of their rotation to leave their August struggles behind.
With the slumping Andrew McCutchen expected back in the lineup, A.J. Burnett looks to bounce back from another shaky start Saturday night when the Pirates try to avoid losing for the eighth time in 11 games as they take on the red-hot Milwaukee Brewers.
With a 9-3 loss in Friday's opener in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh (70-61) concluded August 11-17 to drop 10 games back of NL Central-leading Cincinnati after being three out at the end of July. The Pirates, however, are still just one-half game back of the NL's second wild-card spot, making this the closest they've been to the playoffs entering September since 1997, when they were 2 1/2 games back in the division race.
The Pirates' August fade shouldn't be too surprising, though, considering the play of McCutchen and Burnett (15-5, 3.67 ERA).
McCutchen, who was given Friday off, still leads the league with a .344 average - 29 points lower since Aug. 1 after hitting .252 with two homers last month. A series in Milwaukee, however, could be just what he needs to get back on track.
In six games at Miller Park this season, McCutchen is batting .500 with four homers and nine RBIs. He is also 1 for 3 with a homer against scheduled starter Marco Estrada (2-5, 4.02).
Burnett leads Pittsburgh in wins, but he seems to have hit a wall. The Pirates have lost three of his last four starts, with the right-hander recording a 6.29 ERA. Pittsburgh had the same number of losses in his first 20 starts, with Burnett posting a 3.19 ERA.
One of those defeats came in his lone start against the Brewers on July 15, when he permitted four runs and nine hits in seven innings of a 4-1 final in Milwaukee (63-68). He is 1-3 with a 6.48 ERA in four career starts at Miller Park, and Ryan Braun is 5 for 10 lifetime off him.
The Pirates are hopeful Burnett can go deep after Friday's starter Jeff Karstens got just one out before leaving with a leg injury.
"I don't want to put my team in a situation like that,'' Karstens said
Braun is batting .478 with two homers, four doubles and seven RBIs in his last five games, and he might not even be Milwaukee's hottest hitter.
Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez both went 3 for 4 with home runs Friday, as the Brewers won for the ninth time in 11 games. Hart is batting .364 with three homers and 13 RBIs in the last 14 games, while Ramirez is hitting .433 with four home runs and 14 RBIs in his last eight.
The Brewers are averaging 6.5 runs in their last 11 games, which has been a benefit to Estrada, but the righty is also pitching much better.
Estrada ended a streak of 15 starts and 14 relief appearances without a win by throwing six scoreless innings in beating the Cubs on Aug. 21. Six days later in Chicago, he allowed three unearned runs and six hits in five innings of a 15-4 victory.
His last win against a team other than the Cubs came over Pittsburgh on Aug. 23, 2011. In his lone start of this season against the Pirates on July 14, Estrada gave up three runs in 5 2-3 innings.