With time running out and the losses accumulating, the Pittsburgh Pirates desperately need to take advantage of this favorable portion of their schedule.
In a six-game homestand against baseball's two worst teams, the scuffling Pirates hope to continue their dominance over the Houston Astros in Monday's series opener.
After having a 3 1/2-game cushion to secure a playoff berth Aug. 8, Pittsburgh (70-63) is now 1 1/2 back of the NL's second wild-card spot. The Pirates have lost nine of 12, and are 7-16 since Aug. 9. The Astros, at 5-17, are the only NL team with a worse record in that span.
"Every game right now is key," Gaby Sanchez said after Sunday's 12-8 loss to Milwaukee. "We've got to go out there and keep playing baseball, keep trying to have fun out there and continue pushing forward. All we can do is go out there and battle and give everything we've got."
Although things seem bleak for Pittsburgh after being swept in three games by the Brewers, there is plenty of reason for optimism with three against Houston (41-93) followed by three with the Chicago Cubs - teams that are a combined 83 games under .500.
Pittsburgh has also fared well against each club. It is 9-2 against the Astros, and has won the last six meetings at PNC Park. Andrew McCutchen is batting .565 with two homers, five RBIs and seven runs during the home winning streak.
McCutchen seems to be coming out of his slump, batting .364 during a five-game hitting streak after batting .158 in his previous eight, but his power is still missing. He's hit two homers in his last 42 games.
Garrett Jones, meanwhile, homered twice in the weekend series in Milwaukee to raise his season total to 23. He is batting .424 with four home runs, 11 RBIs and 11 runs in eight games against Houston since the start of July.
McCutchen and Jones will get their first look at Edgar Gonzalez, who is expected to be recalled from Triple-A Oklahoma City.
Gonzalez had a 0.69 ERA in two starts for the RedHawks after pitching in the Mexican League. The right-hander has appeared in just one game since the conclusion of the 2009 season, throwing two innings of relief for Colorado last August.
The Pirates are going with a call-up of their own, with Jeff Locke (0-0, 0.00 ERA) making the jump from Triple-A Indianapolis to take the spot in the rotation of Erik Bedard, who was released on Tuesday.
Locke, one of Pittsburgh's top pitching prospects, went 10-5 with a 2.48 ERA and 131 strikeouts over 141 2-3 innings in 24 starts for the Indians. He really impressed in his final six minor league games, posting a 0.75 ERA with 41 strikeouts over 36 innings.
"He's made a lot of progress," Clint Hurdle told the Pirates' official website. "The next step is to check it out here."
This will be Locke's second stint with the Pirates this year after throwing 4 1-3 scoreless innings in two relief outings in mid-August. He made his major league debut last September, going 0-3 with a 6.48 ERA in four starts.
"The confidence is through the roof," he said. "It won't be easier, but it'll be a lot more comfortable (than last September)."
Facing Houston should help.
With Sunday's 5-3 loss to Cincinnati, the Astros fell for the seventh time in eight games and dropped to 8-40 since the All-Star break. They're offense has been brutal, plating four or fewer runs in 15 of 16 games.
"We're trying to add runs," interim manager Tony DeFrancesco said. "I think we're going to have to be creative and hit and run, suicide squeeze, safety squeeze."