Though the team they're chasing for the NL's second wild-card spot keeps faltering, the Pittsburgh Pirates have failed at nearly every turn to take advantage.
Losers in eight of 10, the visiting Pirates again try to emerge from their second-half malaise Tuesday night against the NL Central-leading Cincinnati Reds after a series-opening 14-inning marathon.
Pittsburgh (72-68) has been in a funk since the beginning of August, when it was 16 games over .500 and had a four-game cushion for a playoff spot. It still had a one-game lead for the NL's second wild-card spot on Aug. 19 after taking two of three from St. Louis, but ending a 20-year postseason drought seems unlikely now.
The Pirates' latest skid reached four in excruciating fashion Monday. After blowing a 3-1 lead in the seventh, Pittsburgh loaded the bases with no outs in the 14th but failed to score. The Reds ended things in the bottom half, walking off with a 4-3 victory after Ryan Ludwick's infield single scored Devin Mesoraco.
The Cardinals - the leaders in the race for the second wild-card spot - lost for the ninth time in 13 games Monday to keep Pittsburgh 2 1/2 games back, but the Pirates remain focused on their own issues.
"Well, you know, I've heard that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger,'' manager Clint Hurdle said. "We're fighting through this thing. This has been a big push for us. It's been a hard time for a while.''
The 14th inning in the opener exemplified Pittsburgh's recent offense woes. The Pirates are 5 for 35 (.143) with runners in scoring position during their latest four-game skid, striking out 10 times.
"Our offense had multiple opportunities to pick us up tonight, and it continues to not give us what we need when we need it,'' Hurdle said.
The Reds (85-57) have a 9 1/2-game lead over St. Louis atop the Central, but they've hardly been an offensive machine with Joey Votto back in the lineup. Cincinnati is hitting .228 in the five games since the first baseman's return and .226 overall in September - including a woeful .175 with runners on second or third.
Those struggles made manager Dusty Baker even more pleased with Monday's win.
"That was a game we needed big-time,'' Baker said. ''We were spent, emotionally and physically.''
The Reds will hope to fare better against Kevin Correia (10-8, 4.28 ERA), who makes a second straight start after bouncing between the bullpen and the rotation for the past six weeks. The right-hander was sharp Wednesday against the major league-worst Astros, holding them to a run and four hits over six innings in a 6-3 win.
Hurdle called Correia's outing "very professional."
He's likely been less pleased with the way he's looked against Cincinnati this season. Correia is 0-1 with a 6.00 ERA in two starts, surrendering four homers in 12 innings.
Mike Leake (7-9, 4.73) counters for the Reds looking to bounce back from one of his worst starts of the season. The righty lasted just 2 1-3 innings Wednesday against Philadelphia, yielding two homers and six runs.
"I had trouble keeping the ball where I wanted it," Leake said.
He's had that problem often since the All-Star break. Leake has a 6.18 ERA in his last 10 starts, and seems unlikely to wind up in Cincinnati's playoff rotation.
Leake is 0-1 with a 4.95 ERA in three 2012 starts versus Pittsburgh. Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez are both 1 for 8 this season against Leake, yet outfielder Alex Presley - who owns a .278 on-base percentage - is 5 for 7 with a homer, double and a triple.
Leake's 5.69 ERA at Great American Ball Park is the highest home mark among NL starters.