PITTSBURGH -- The stage is set -- again. The St. Louis Cardinals are coming into town holding a slim lead atop the National League Central -- again.
Exactly a month ago, on July 30, the Pirates took the lead away from the Redbirds. Take two?
"As we're driving over [from New York on Wednesday], we were talking about the St. Louis series," John Buck, the former Mets catcher, said of his road trip with Marlon Byrd, the former Mets outfielder. "It's one of the reasons they picked us up, and we're really looking forward to it."
The Bucs enter with positive thoughts, but not positive momentum, with Milwaukee right-hander Yovani Gallardo squashing that Thursday by pitching six-hit ball through seven innings to set up the Brewers' 4-0 win at PNC Park.
Thursday night's defeat had a significant toll, even though it left the Pirates only one full game behind the Cardinals -- whom they host Friday night in the opener of a three-game series. With 29 games remaining on the regular-season schedule, it is not too soon to consider such variables:
By taking the series against the Brewers and entering the St. Louis set in a dead-heat tie for first place in the NL Central, the Bucs could have claimed the division lead by simply winning the series, two-of-three; now only a sweep will do it.
Gallardo's precision didn't allow for Gerrit Cole's inconsistencies. Pitching gamely but under frequent duress, Cole did not have a three-up and three-down inning until the sixth, and he allowed 10 hits in 7 1/3 innings -- yet only three runs while he was on the mound.
Domination is one way to make an impression. Tenacity is another, and Cole had enough of that going to persuade manager Clint Hurdle to let him enter the eighth for the first time in 14 Major League starts.
"He's thrown some good innings for us, but for me," Hurdle said, "the fifth, sixth, seventh were the best he has thrown all year. Quick outs, first-pitch strikes ... the way he was finishing the game, it was important to give him some new territory. He earned it."
No question, Thursday night unfolded merely as something to segue into Friday. That was Buck's going-away message to Cole after having caught him for the first time.
"He told me, 'Don't hang your head over this one. You did a good job and kept everyone fresh for the St. Louis series,'" relayed Cole, an allusion to most of the bullpen. "I didn't think about it like that at the time, but I guess that was important."
The Pirates do run into St. Louis having dropped consecutive, albeit spread out, home series.
Maybe the Bucs lost this one just because they didn't have enough new players. Byrd, who had already introduced himself with a three-run homer in Wednesday's victory, and Buck, in his three-hit Pirates debut, combined for four of their six hits.
"It relieved some of the anxiety," Buck said of the second three-hit game of his season, the other coming on May 1. "Gets you right away in the flow, gets that monkey off your back."
Gallardo was fortunate to be pitching in a forgiving ballpark. Many of the Pirates' outs came on balls hit very hard or very far, or both. Andrew McCutchen, in particular, had a triple in the first, then hit a bullet into a double play and a blistered liner that left stitch marks in third baseman Aramis Ramirez's glove.
"We got a couple of guys on early for that big hit, and it didn't happen," Hurdle said. "He was able to shut us down. Changed speeds, stayed out of the middle of the plate."
The Pirates had one two-hit inning, the second, when, not surprisingly, Byrd and Buck both singled. There was one other two-on opportunity, when Gaby Sanchez drew a two-out walk in the fourth and Buck followed with his second single. Neither time could the Bucs convert, as they went down to their 10th shutout defeat.
Cole certainly qualifies as a junior member of the A.J. Burnett "Runs Deprivation Society." In his last six losses, the Pirates have scored a total of eight runs.
Taking his second consecutive turn on seven days' rest -- an approach designed to "keep his innings in check," as Hurdle explained -- Cole implied the extra time off may have slightly affected his command, until those late innings that turned out his best.
"I started to get in a groove later in the game and get the feel back of where I wanted to miss with pitches," Cole said. "I started to get a better feel as the game went on. I started missing in better spots."
Cole definitely did not have good command on a pickoff throw to first in the first inning. It skipped between first baseman Gaby Sanchez and baserunner Jean Segura, who was able to motor to third on the error and score an unearned run from there on Jonathan Lucroy's single.
"I screwed up that pickoff play pretty good," Cole said.
Milwaukee did not need such help to make it 2-0 in the second, when Carlos Gomez singled and stole second before scoring on Khris Davis' double off The Clemente Wall.
Ramirez led off the fourth with his ninth homer for a 3-0 lead that was already beginning to look insurmountable in Gallardo's care.
Gallardo will let the Pirates and Cardinals fend for themselves on Friday. He was just pleased to have taken care of one of the NL Central contenders himself.
"We all know," Gallardo said. "We hear things. We might be the team to spoil the chance of certain teams. But no matter what, when you're playing teams within your division, there's always that competitiveness, whether it's the first week of the season or the last."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.