PITTSBURGH — Russell Martin swatted at Jonathan Broxton's 96 mph fastball and watched as Carlos Gomez gave chase. When the ball cleared the fence just out of Gomez's reach, the Pittsburgh Pirates catcher thumped his chest as he rounded first base after providing the latest lightning bolt in a season full of them for one of baseball's most resilient teams.
"It's hard to be happier than that," Martin said.
Buried in May, the Pirates are streaking toward October.
Martin's three-run blast off Broxton with one out in the eighth inning ignited the Pirates to a 4-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday night and gave Pittsburgh a 4½-game lead in the race for the second National League wild card spot with just nine days left in the regular season.
It's a spot that seemed impossible in the spring. At one point Pittsburgh trailed Milwaukee by 9Â½ games. Now the Pirates have all the momentum. Pittsburgh has won a season-high five straight and 12 of its last 14.
Mark Melancon worked a perfect ninth for his 31st save. John Holdzkom (1-0) earned the win in relief for his first major league victory.
Pittsburgh spent seven innings getting overpowered by Milwaukee starter Yovani Gallardo, who struck out 11 before finally exiting after 112 pitches. Broxton (4-3), acquired on Aug. 31 to bolster a bullpen in anticipation of a playoff push, quickly gave it all away.
Starling Marte led off the Pittsburgh eighth with an infield single. Neil Walker singled with one out to set the stage for Martin, who had two ugly check swings before taking a 1-1 pitch and sending it into the second row of seats in right-center field for his 11th homer of the year and by far his most important.
"I was trying to go down-and-away," Broxton said. "I don't know where it was. I don't watch the videos."
Probably a good idea after the Brewers — who led the NL Central for 149 days this year — watched their playoff hopes take another devastating blow. Rickie Weeks hit his seventh homer of the season off Pirates starter Jeff Locke and Jonathan Lucroy added an RBI-single, but Milwaukee lost its third straight.
The Brewers let a 2-0 lead get away late on Thursday night against St. Louis and fell in extra innings. They arrived in Pittsburgh at 4 a.m. on Friday morning hoping to revive their season against a team they have dominated for years, including an 11-5 mark this season. Now they likely need to sweep the final two games of the series to have any reasonable chance of catching Pittsburgh.
"When you go to late innings, we're used to putting games away," Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke said. "We've been really good all year in finishing out games, and we're not doing it right now."
Gallardo did his part. He escaped early trouble and then settled down, retiring nine of the final 10 batters he faced before giving way to Broxton after 112 leave-it-all-out-there pitches.
The Pirates stranded six runners in the first four innings against Gallardo with nothing to show for it. Still, they remained upbeat after Gallardo tired.
"We're a team that has a pretty good offense. When you have somebody that neutralizes you, it's frustrating," Martin said. "But we believe in each other and we believe when we get to the bullpen we can make things happen."
Ike Davis added an RBI single later in the inning off Jeremy Jeffress to give Melancon a little extra cushion he wouldn't need.
Brewers: Milwaukee 1B Mark Reynolds was back in the lineup on Friday, going 0 for 3 less than 24 hours after a rare mental mistake opened the door to a late St. Louis rally.
"This guy, instinctually, is unbelievable," Roenicke said. "That's why when you see those things happen, it's surprising. And, you know, why couldn't you do it in a game that didn't matter? Or a month ago, when maybe we were winning 6-0 in a game and you make a mistake? It's just when he made it that was so tough."
Pirates: RHP Charlie Morton's return from the disabled list may be short-lived. Pittsburgh pulled Morton from his next scheduled start on Sunday after he felt discomfort in his groin and midsection late in his five innings of work in a victory over Boston on Tuesday. The pain intensified during a bullpen session on Thursday. Vance Worley will take Morton's spot in the rotation when the Pirates wrap up the series with Milwaukee.
Brewers: Matt Garza (8-8, 3.74 ERA) will make his third start against the Pirates this season. The right-hander is 1-0 with a 6.55 ERA versus Pittsburgh. He is coming off six solid innings in a victory over Cincinnati last Sunday.
Pirates: Edinson Volquez (12-7, 3.27 ERA) will search for his fifth straight victory when he faces the Brewers on Saturday. The 30-year-old is 2-1 with a 2.88 ERA in four starts against Milwaukee this season.