PITTSBURGH -- It is late August. The Pirates sit atop the National League Central, with two teams chasing them like hounds chasing a butcher's van with its rear door thrown open.
Just don't call this gut-check time to Clint Hurdle's face.
"If you don't do well, does that mean you don't have any guts?" the Pirates' manager wondered before the Bucs met the D-backs in the rubber game of their PNC Park series. "So I don't go with that. A challenging time? Yeah. It's a challenge to your club. You need to respond."
Again, on Sunday the Pirates had no response to an opposition pitching staff's decision to play rough after a few early shots to the chin.
The result: Adam Eaton's two-run double with two outs in the 16th in Major League neophyte Kris Johnson's sixth inning of work dealt the Bucs a crushing 4-2 loss to the D-backs.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen made a desperate, all-out dive for Eaton's softly hit, quickly sinking flair, only to have it kick off the tip of his glove and let the air out of PNC Park.
"Maybe if I would've had time to dive headfirst, slide under it," McCutchen said. "I just wish I could've caught it."
The game came down to such desperation because the Pirates stopped scoring after having taken a 2-0 lead in the third inning. That made Sunday's game eerily similar to Tuesday's game in St. Louis, which the Bucs led 3-0 after two and wound up falling, 4-3, in 14.
The Pirates had only two hits in the seven extra innings off five Arizona relievers, and a total of three in the game's final nine innings.
"We've got some guys not in the most competitive state in the batter's box," said Hurdle, finding a tactful way of expressing his disappointment over the approach. "We were challenged, had balls to hit and weren't able to hit them. You can go in with a big swing, but then you have to put your foot down and make contact. We need to improve the length and quality of our at-bats."
Hurdle did not have his best game either, thanks to circumstances. For instance, going all-in for a ninth-inning scoring opportunity emptied his bench, leading to Johnson having to make the final out -- with two men on base -- in the 16th on his third at-bat of the game.
"I can use another pitcher [to hit]," said Hurdle, aware that many people were looking for Gerrit Cole (5-for-21, three RBIs) to grab a bat against J.J. Putz. "And what if he gets hit on the wrist by a ball? The reward wasn't worth the risk for me."
The Pirates' third extra-inning game of the week hatched a new local hero in Johnson, who had blanked Arizona for the first 5 2/3 innings of his Major League debut.
Johnson did not get a soft landing spot for his baptismal after eight years in the Minors. The 28-year-old left-hander entered the game as the Bucs' fourth pitcher, to start the 11th.
"It was a little nerve-wracking at first," Johnson acknowledged. "I know we're in a pennant race. You see some of the younger guys come up [from Indianapolis], and you don't want to be that guy [who falters]. Same game. Bigger stage."
Johnson began his sixth inning of relief work by walking A.J. Pollock. Didi Gregorius followed with a sharp single and, following a strikeout of pinch-hitter Jason Kubel, an infield roller by Wil Nieves moved both runners into scoring position for Eaton.
"He had good stuff, very composed," Eaton said of Johnson, whom he was facing for the third time. "To be thrown in that situation in extra innings and to throw the way he did was very impressive. The more you see a guy the more comfortable you can get off him and see his pitches."
Johnson called his performance, after having waited so long to reach the stage, "Satisfying."
"I just wish I could've done a little more," Johnson added. "Maybe make a better pitch at the end. [McCutchen] made an outstanding effort with a great slide, the ball went just off the top of his glove."
"He needed to go out there and give us that kind of length when we absolutely had to have it," said Hurdle, whose incumbent relievers were gassed. "To throw up the zeros ... we couldn't have asked him to do anything more."
Arizona starter Wade Miley's first-inning caution with McCutchen -- he walked him after having retired the first two men -- immediately backfired on Russell Martin's RBI double, giving the Bucs a 1-0 lead.
In the third, Starling Marte singled sharply off shortstop Gregorius' glove and Jordy Mercer chased him home with a double to right-center, making it 2-0.
Pirates starter Charlie Morton had dismissed the D-backs on three hits through five innings before they stirred to life in the sixth, scoring one run on Aaron Hill's single and another as Gerardo Parra was bouncing into a double play with the bases loaded.
Almost before he had a chance to catch his breath, Morton was back in similar trouble in the seventh, when Arizona again had the bases loaded, with one out. The right-hander's 97th and final pitch of this game was his 1,030th of this season, and likely the most important. A harrowing out on Martin Prado -- he blistered a line drive, but right to third baseman Pedro Alvarez -- merely confronted Morton with Paul Goldschmidt.
Morton struck out the NL's co-leader in home runs to keep the game tied at 2. He departed for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of that inning, having held the lineup that had produced 15 runs and 20 hits the day before to two and seven, respectively, with three walks and six strikeouts.
Morton's excellence was anything but a luxury. The Pirates needed the innings out of the starter -- their bullpen had worked 34 innings the previous eight games. Also, Morton had to be tough just to keep up with Miley.
The young lefty worked through the eighth, also allowing two runs and seven hits while walking two and fanning eight. Then he was ably picked up by Joe Thatcher, Heath Bell, Eury De La Rosa, Josh Collmenter, Brad Ziegler and Putz.
De La Rosa began the 11th so, from that point on, it was four against one (Johnson).
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.