PITTSBURGH - A.J. Burnett took the mound at PNC Park yesterday afternoon with both a lead and a heartfelt welcome from Pirates fans.
Burnett, who revived his career in Pittsburgh in the last 2 years before signing with the Phillies as a free agent, drew a standing ovation as he returned to the field in a different uniform.
A video tribute played on the ballpark's scoreboard. As the rousing applause grew louder, Burnett tipped his cap.
"It caught me off-guard . . . very classy," he said afterward.
Five batters into his Steel City homecoming, Burnett continued to be popular with Pirates fans. His former battery mate, catcher Russell Martin, ripped a two-out, two-run double to right-center to erase the Phillies' only lead of the holiday weekend series and pave the way for Pittsburgh's 6-2 victory.
The Phillies finished the afternoon with four hits. They had 11 hits and six runs in the three-game series.
Not surprisingly, they were swept by their western Pennsylvania neighbors. It was the first time the Phillies had been swept in Pittsburgh since 2002.
The Phillies have been swept eight times in the season's first 14 weeks, the most before the All-Star break since they were swept 11 times in the first half of the 1997 season.
The 1997 Phillies lost 94 games. The 2014 Phillies (37-51) could surpass that and flirt with 100 losses if they continue to play as they have in the last 2 weeks.
Since sweeping the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field and taking the first two games of a four-game series in St. Louis in mid-June, the Phillies have lost 13 of their last 16 games. The Phillies are hitting .211 (and .172 with runners in scoring position) over that span).
The Phillies have lost nine of their last 10 games and have scored two runs or fewer in seven of those games. The Phillies have scored two runs or fewer in 35 of their 88 games this season (40 percent of their games).
Perhaps what's most puzzling: Unlike in year's past, they do not have the excuse of losing key components of their lineup to injuries this season.
"I feel like we have a better offensive team than how we've performed over the course of the year," said Chase Utley, who was out of yesterday's lineup after struggling for the majority of the last month. "We've had some really good games and we've had too many not-so-good games. I mean at this point, going forward, we have to continue to grind out at-bats and try to stay positive."
Remaining upbeat becomes more challenging with each passing day. The Phils enter a four-game series in Milwaukee today - home of the National League's best team - with one win in the last 10 days.
The Brewers (52-37) have a starting pitching staff that has held opponents to a .247 batting average. And their offense - which scored 25 runs in fueling them to a three-game sweep in Philadelphia in April - ranks in the top three in the NL in runs (391, second), OPS (.731, third), total bases (1,251, second), home runs (89, second) and extra-base hits (second).
When compared to a Phillies offense that can barely put across more than two runs a night, well, you get the point.
"[I'm] not losing faith in it, but continue to have the guys fight and battle," manager Ryne Sandberg said of his struggling offense. "[We'll] try to break out of it. But there is more potential there than what we've shown. Once again, Marlon [Byrd] has been the most consistent and pretty steady all year. We need more guys to chip in more consistently."
In the last two games in Pittsburgh, Byrd accounted for half of the Phillies' offense with a pair of solo home runs. He has 18 this season, which could make him a somewhat attractive trade piece later this month, despite his contract ($20 million through 2016 if his vesting option kicks in) and age (he turns 37 next month).
Both Byrd and Burnett played in the postseason with the Pirates 9 months ago and thought they were joining a veteran Phillies team that afforded them the same chance.
"It's very hard to believe," said Burnett, who allowed three runs in seven innings yesterday, striking out seven and walking two. "There's a lot of talent in this room beyond what we're doing. No question. Find a way to keep plugging, man. I know I say that every time I start, but that's the truth. You can't get down. You can't pout. You can't hold your head. Fifty-one losses, that's not good at all. You've got to come in and somehow stay in the right frame of mind and try to keep plugging."
After yesterday's defeat, the Phillies were one of four teams in baseball with more than 50 losses. They are the first Phillies team to lose more than 50 games before the All-Star break since, once again, the 1997 Phillies (24-61).
No Phillies team has lost 100 games since 1961 (47-107).
On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21