The Pittsburgh Pirates have slipped to their lowest point in 3 1/2 months, and their wild-card deficit in relation to games remaining is beginning to seem insurmountable.
Wandy Rodriguez has been one of the few bright spots during their recent struggles, and he'll look to continue his hot streak in Thursday's series finale at home against the surging Milwaukee Brewers.
Pittsburgh's 3-1 loss to Milwaukee on Wednesday brought them closer to their 20th consecutive losing season and farther away from the NL's second wild-card spot, falling 4 1/2 games behind St. Louis.
The Pirates (74-74), who were tied for first place in the Central as late as July 18, are .500 for the first time since a loss at Milwaukee dropped them to 26-26 on June 2. They haven't finished .500 or better since Jim Leyland guided a 96-66 team to its third straight division title in 1992.
Andrew McCutchen homered in the ninth for Pittsburgh's only run.
"We haven't played well and it's been for a while," manager Clint Hurdle said. "So, you know, we had earned the position we were in before; we've earned this position as well. The season's 162 games for a reason."
Pittsburgh is 5-14 since Aug. 29, with Rodriguez picking up three of the victories.
Rodriguez (11-13, 3.65 ERA) went 0-4 with a 5.17 ERA in his first five starts for Pittsburgh after being acquired from Houston before the trade deadline.
The left-hander, though, has been solid since he allowed three runs and walked four in 6 2-3 innings of a 6-5 loss to Milwaukee on Aug. 24, going 3-0 with a 1.40 ERA in his last four starts.
Rodriguez allowed three runs - one earned - in six innings of his 7-6 win over the Chicago Cubs on Saturday. He has a 2.08 ERA over his last four starts versus the Brewers, who have won four straight and 22 of 28.
Milwaukee (76-72), which traded ace Zach Greinke to the Angels on July 27 when it was nine games under .500 and 12 behind Pittsburgh in the standings, remained 2 1/2 games behind St. Louis for the second wild-card spot after the Cardinals beat Houston later Wednesday.
"If anything, the Greinke trade gave us some motivation," closer John Axford said. "We didn't feel in the clubhouse like we were out of it. We never gave up."
Norichika Aoki homered on the second pitch of the game, and he's hitting .429 with two homers during a nine-game hitting streak.
The Brewers look to keep rolling when they send Mike Fiers to the mound.
Fiers (9-8, 3.23) was a pleasant surprise for the Brewers through his first 12 starts, going 6-4 with stellar 1.82 ERA. He hasn't been quite as good since, dropping to 3-4 with a 6.55 ERA over his last seven outings after giving up four runs in five innings of Friday's 7-3 loss to the Mets.
"The playoffs are right around the corner, and we need to win as many games as possible," Fiers said after his last outing. "Sure, there's a little bit of pressure there, but there is no excuse for me throwing the ball all over the place."
One of the right-hander's better outings during his rough patch came last month when he opposed Rodriguez, giving up three runs and striking out a career high-tying 10 in 6 2-3 innings to beat the Pirates.