MILWAUKEE -- For most of Thursday afternoon, it appeared the Shark Tank was back in the water, right up until the moment the Brewers bit back.
Pirates closer Mark Melancon endured an uncharacteristically shaky outing and never recorded an out in the ninth as Milwaukee outfielder Khris Davis' soft single plated two runs and sent the Pirates to a 4-3 loss at Miller Park.
After three scoreless innings of relief in Wednesday's win and three more dominant innings of relief Thursday, the Pirates headed into the ninth on the cusp of a series victory that never came to pass. Ryan Braun singled and Melancon (1-2) issued back-to-back free passes to Jonathan Lucroy and Mark Reynolds before Davis hit a flare to center field.
"He's a human being and just didn't have his best stuff today," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "The walks are uncharacteristic. He's been here for a while, and that's something we haven't seen.
"More often than not if a closer doesn't close, people want to hang him. He goes out there and competes, and nobody feels worse than he does in that clubhouse right now. He's been very efficient. That's what makes the game so challenging. You have to continually do it, and there's no safety net when you're in the position of closer."
The Pirates have lost eight of 10 meetings against the Brewers this season, and it was Pittsburgh's fourth loss of the year when leading after eight innings. The team only had two such losses in 2013, and this year, the Pirates lead the league with 10 blown saves.
What was so maddening about it was how great the relief work had been in support of Wandy Rodriguez, who acquitted himself well in his first start since April 19. Justin Wilson threw two perfect innings of relief, throwing 17 of 21 pitches for strikes and punching out four batters. Tony Watson followed with a scoreless eighth, adding two more strikeouts.
"I was just being aggressive," Wilson said. "I felt I had a better angle on my fastball today and was ahead in the count. That seemed to help. I got a couple quick outs in the first inning and just built off of that."
Hurdle also took notice of the superb outing.
"The skill set that he's got, the live fastball plays," he said. "He was able to shove it in on some people. The cutter, he can backdoor it. He can throw it down and in. He threw a curveball for a strike today. The pitch sequence was excellent and the stuff just really played well. Very efficient."
Tony Sanchez and Gaby Sanchez hit home runs in the fifth and sixth, respectively, each one giving the Pirates the lead. Gaby's solo shot leading off the sixth against Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo looked like it would account for the winning blow until the ninth when Melancon threw only 7 of 18 pitches for strikes.
"I was just pulling it," Melancon said, adding that he believed it was a one-time issue. "Two walks aren't going to bring any red flags to me.
"There wasn't any concern [in the bases-loaded moment]. I just put myself in a bad spot. I know I could kick back and start throwing strikes … I was just in a tough spot."
Davis said he was trying to call timeout just before the final pitch was thrown, but home-plate umpire C.B. Bucknor denied the late request.
"I just saw a good pitch and threw my hands at it," he said. "It feels pretty good. To win a series at home is always important and that's going to go a long way to getting us in the playoffs. I know the pitcher's in trouble when he's like that, so it gives me some breathing room. You want to do what you've been doing, stay with your approach, see a good pitch and put a good swing on it."
The finish left Rodriguez shy of his first win this season, but the five-inning performance was encouraging. Rodriguez, who was activated from the disabled list prior to the start, threw 73 pitches, allowing two runs on four hits with one walk and four strikeouts. It marked a promising step forward after he allowed 17 earned runs in 20 innings entering the contest, with two shaky rehab outings to boot as he worked back from knee inflammation.
"Wandy's first time out and [considering] where he had been before that, that was excellent," Hurdle said. "No matter how many years you play this game, there are times when a confidence boost is a good thing. We turned it over to the guys capable of shutting it down, and that didn't happen for us."
The early returns for Rodriguez looked ominous when Rickie Weeks opened the game with a double and moved to third on Jean Segura's bunt single with nobody out. But when Braun hit a comebacker to Rodriguez, the left-hander was able to hold Weeks in place with time to initiate a 1-6-3 double play.
"It was a good hitter, I threw a good changeup right there and he hit a groundball right to me," Rodriguez said. "Double-play ball. … I didn't really think about the speed [of my pitches]; I paid more attention to where I located the ball. Like I said, I made two mistakes. I didn't feel 100 percent, but I can pitch and I can run."
The Pirates escaped the first without allowing a run. Weeks lofted an opposite-field home run for his first round-tripper of the year in the third, giving Milwaukee a 1-0 lead.
Gallardo didn't allow a hit through four innings, but the bottom third of the Pirates' order produced three straight in the fifth. Jose Tabata singled up the middle, and Tony Sanchez delivered his first home run of the year, an opposite-field blast on an 0-2 pitch that gave the Pirates a 2-1 lead.
Rodriguez followed with a base hit, and Neil Walker upped his hitting streak to seven games with a single two batters later. Pittsburgh didn't score again in that frame, but Gaby Sanchez responded after the Brewers tied the game in the bottom of the fifth.
Brewers catcher Martin Maldonado, who punched Pirates outfielder Travis Snider in an April 20 bench-clearing incident that resulted in suspensions for both, shook Snider's hand near home plate when he offered before leading off in the top of the first. Maldonado also tied the game at 2 with his second home run of the year, a blast to left in the fifth.
The Pirates lost a key scoring opportunity in the eighth when Gaby Sanchez smoked a sharp chopper to Reynolds at third base after the first two batters had reached. Reynolds made a reactionary stab, stumbled and recovered to initiate a double play, and the Brewers ultimately escaped the jam.
JR Radcliffe is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.