PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Pirates have spent all season relying on a remarkable resiliency that enables them to brush off adversity and get back to the cumbersome task of returning the franchise to the playoffs and respectability.
The final steps may be the hardest of all.
San Diego's Logan Forsythe and Rene Rivera delivered consecutive RBI singles in the ninth inning off Pirates closer Mark Melancon and the Padres rallied for a 3-2 victory Wednesday night.
Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen rounds third base after hitting a home run against San Diego on Wednesday night.
"Just got to tip your hat, they put the ball in play and found some holes," Melancon said after blowing his third save. "They did a good job. Sometimes it happens that way."
Pittsburgh's magic number to clinch its first playoff berth in 21 years dropped to five when Atlanta beat Washington, but the club's pursuit of St. Louis for the NL Central title took a major blow when Melancon faltered. The Pirates have dropped three straight against the NL West also-rans, none more painful than this one.
Andrew McCutchen hit a two-run homer off Tyson Ross with one out in the seventh to give the Pirates their first lead of the series and set the stage for an emotional victory. Pittsburgh came in 74-2 when leading after eight innings.
Not this time.
Forsythe's single to right scored pinch-runner Andrew Cashner to tie the game and Rivera's blooper brought home Chris Denorfia as the Padres improved to 31-10 at PNC Park since it opened in 2001. Dale Thayer (3-5) picked up the win in relief. Huston Street pitched a perfect ninth for his 33rd save.
"It was something special," Rivera said. "We battled all game and we came through."
Melancon (2-2) had been lights out since taking for Jason Grilli after the All-Star went down with a strained right forearm in July. He had converted 16 of 18 opportunities on the season, one of the main reasons the Pirates are in the midst of an actual pennant race for the first time in two decades.
Melancon spent most of the night watching Pittsburgh starter Charlie Morton duel with Ross but found himself warming up after McCutchen broke the Pirates out of a lengthy slump with a towering two-run shot to right-center with one out in the seventh.
Ross had retired 15 straight before Neil Walker reached on a strikeout and wild pitch. He then fell behind McCutchen 3-0 and the Pittsburgh star pounced on a fastball over the heart of the plate for his 20th homer of the season.
McCutchen zipped around the bases and tipped his cap following a curtain call in what appeared to be the signature moment of an MVP-worthy year.
"I got a pitch out of that at-bat to hit and I didn't miss it," McCutchen said. "That's what I'm supposed to do. That's my job."
Morton breezed through the eight before giving way to Melancon. Even though Morton had thrown just 99 pitches while recording 24 outs, he doesn't doubt going to Melancon was the way to go.
"I'd like to think I could but Mark's been dominant," Morton said. "So I think that was the right decision. I wouldn't ever question that."
Morton tied a career-high with nine strikeouts while allowing one run on two hits. Mixing his sinker with an improved curveball in his comeback from Tommy John surgery last year, Morton only allowed a handful of balls out of the infield.
The problem for Morton is that Ross was even better. The Pirates lit up the right-hander for five runs in 6 1-3 innings in San Diego a month ago but came in having scored just two runs in the first two games of the series.
Justin Morneau singled leading off the second before being erased on a double play. Ross spent the next 90 minutes toying with the Pirates. Pittsburgh only managed to get three balls to the outfield through six innings until Ross tired in the seventh.
Still, even McCutchen allowed his home run did nothing more than put a small dent in his team's offensive woes. Pittsburgh has scored just 16 runs seven games into an 11-game homestand that could determine where - and perhaps even if - they play in October.
"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."