PITTSBURGH -- The vote of confidence was much appreciated by Milwaukee Brewers manager Ken Macha. Even better was his bullpen's performance -- and the badly needed victory it produced.
George Kottaras, playing only because of an injury, doubled in the tying run and the Brewers rallied from a three-run deficit to end a nine-game losing streak that was their longest in nearly four seasons, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-3 on Thursday night.
Hours after general manager Doug Melvin strongly supported Macha, the Brewers came back from 3-0 deficit in the first with two two-run innings despite having a thin bench and a beaten-up bullpen.
Carlos Villanueva finished it off by pitching the ninth for the first save this season by a Brewers reliever other than Trevor Hoffman, who sat out the two-game series to work on mechanical problems. Villanueva hit Ryan Doumit with a pitch before getting Delwyn Young to ground into a game-ending double play.
The Brewers were 5-for-13 in save opportunities -- Hoffman is 5-for-10 -- before Villanueva got his sixth career save. Milwaukee's bullpen came in with a 6.17 ERA, the NL's second-worst, only to pitch three scoreless innings in support of starter Chris Narveson (4-1).
Right-hander John Axford, making his third appearance since being called up from Triple-A, didn't allow a hit while pitching the seventh and eighth innings. He also pitched a scoreless inning as Pittsburgh won 6-4 on Wednesday, causing Macha to promise himself that he'd pitch him again Thursday.
Good move. Axford hit 96 mph on the radar gun with his fastball and threw several breaking balls that dropped a foot.
"That was just such a big lift out of the bullpen by Axford. You put an outing like that in, I'd say at least four of those nine games, we win the game," Macha said.
Neither home plate umpire John Hirschbeck nor Brewers catcher Gregg Zaun made it past the second inning.
Hirschbeck developed concussion-like symptoms when struck by a Narveson warm-up pitch that fooled Zaun as the Pirates were about to bat in the first. Hirschbeck stayed in the game as the Pirates took a 3-0 lead, only to be replaced by James Hoye before Milwaukee batted in the second. Three umpires finished the game.
"We were staring at the glare and talking about how bad it was and the next pitch, bam, right in the mask," Zaun said. "I felt so bad."
Zaun left with a strained right shoulder in the second. With outfielder Jody Gerut away to be with his pregnant wife, the Brewers were left with only two extra position players. Zaun will return to Milwaukee to be examined by doctors and is expected to go on the disabled list.
Milwaukee was so thin on the bench, pitcher Yovani Gallardo struck out pinch-hitting.
Zaun stayed in the game long enough to drive in a run with a grounder following Corey Hart's RBI triple in a two-run second inning. Kottaras then doubled to tie it and Adam Stern added a run-scoring grounder in the fourth as Milwaukee made good use of its four hits in seven innings off Paul Maholm (3-4).
"It was the best I felt all season, and it wasn't good enough," said Maholm, who struck out seven.
Maholm waited more than a half-hour to pitch between the first and second innings because of the Pirates' big inning and the Hirschbeck injury delay, and it admittedly got him out of his rhythm.
"Definitely, it's no excuse," he said. "It happens. But a couple of bad pitches, and there's the game."
"You think that after you get a three-spot in the first ..." Pearce said. "We couldn't find a big hit."
Narveson was effective after that, giving up three hits over five shutout innings.
Stern made his sixth career start in center field. The first five came with the Boston Red Sox in 2005-06. ... Prince Fielder went 0-for-3 against Maholm and is 3-for-40 (.075) against him in his career. ... Villanueva had three saves last season. ... Milwaukee avoided its first 10-game losing streak since late in the 2006 season.