If the Pittsburgh Pirates’ chances of NL Central contention hadn’t already vanished when they faced the Chicago Cubs one month ago, they certainly did by the time that four-game set was finished.
With similar results at Wrigley Field, they won’t even be ahead of the Cubs.
The lifeless Pirates try to avoid a sixth straight loss in Friday’s opener of a three-game set against fifth-place Chicago, which would pull even with Pittsburgh with a second sweep in a month.
The Pirates (62-75) had lost eight of 11 and fallen to 54-52 - 4 1/2 games behind division-leading Milwaukee - when they began hosting the Cubs on Aug. 1, entering what looked like a prime opportunity to get back on track. Instead, Chicago left with a four-game sweep that sent Pittsburgh back under .500.
The nosedive has only worsened since. The Pirates have lost a major league-high 23 games since the beginning of August, with a 6-4 defeat in Thursday’s makeup game against the Dodgers their fifth in a row.
Pittsburgh scored only one run in eight innings against Dana Eveland - making his first major league start in more than 14 months - and is hitting .192 during its latest losing streak.
The Cubs (59-78) have lost eight of 11, but they finished August at 16-13 and can pull even with the Pirates in fourth place with a three-game sweep. Chicago took the first two games in San Francisco in its final series of the month, but was held to two singles while dropping Wednesday’s finale 4-0.
Ryan Dempster (10-10, 4.76 ERA) will try to be the latest pitcher to stymie the Pirates’ offense, but he has a 7.84 ERA in his last four games against Pittsburgh.
The right-hander was solid in late July and most of August after a disastrous first half, delivering six consecutive quality starts before taking the mound Saturday in Milwaukee. The streak ended there, as Dempster gave up five runs and seven hits - two homers - over four innings in a 6-4 loss.
The Pirates counter with Brian Burres, who makes his first appearance in the majors since losing the finale of Pittsburgh’s 105-loss season Oct. 3.
Burres was 5-9 with a 4.66 ERA in 25 games with Triple-A Indianapolis in 2011.
The left-hander is 1-0 despite a 6.60 ERA in four career appearances - two starts - versus the Cubs.
The Cubs' front office and manager Mike Quade will meet Friday morning to discuss minor league call-ups, but any call-ups the Cubs do make probably won't get to Chicago until the minor league regular seasons end on Labor Day.
The Cubs likely won't crowd their roster with a whole lot of minor league additions, but there are some intriguing possibilities.
Journeyman first baseman Bryan LaHair was selected the Pacific Coast League's MVP this week. He entered Thursday with 38 home runs at Class AAA Iowa, a franchise record. LaHair also was batting .331 with 109 RBI and an OPS of 1.070.
LaHair, 28, is not on the 40-man roster, but the Cubs might reward him for a good season. It's open to question how much playing time LaHair would get.
Incumbent first baseman Carlos Pena is tied for the team lead with 24 home runs with Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez. Both LaHair and Pena bat left-handed.
The Cubs are sure to bring up two or three pitchers to work out of the bullpen. Right-hander Chris Carpenter is a possibility. He was up with the Cubs briefly this year.
A third catcher to join Geovany Soto and Koyie Hill also seems likely. Prospect Welington Castillo is on Iowa's disabled list with a hamstring injury. If Castillo isn't ready, the Cubs can either wait, or they can turn to Steve Clevenger, another prospect who has put up good numbers between Iowa and Class AA Kodak.
3B Aramis Ramirez has cooled of late. The Cubs' best hitter in the second half is 6-for-30 (.200) over the last week. Still, he is tied for the team home run lead at 24 with LF Alfonso Soriano and 1B Carlos Pena. Ramirez has a hitting line of .305/.351/.514.
RHP Ryan Dempster starts Friday's series opener against Pittsburgh. Since going back to being a starter in 2008 after serving as the Cubs' closer, Dempster has posted three straight seasons of 200-plus innings. That streak is in jeopardy, given that Dempster has pitched 164 1/3 innings entering Friday.
CF Marlon Byrd has rebounded from a slump with a seven-game hitting streak, during which he's gone 9-for-27. Byrd was 4-for-28 in eight games from Aug. 16-24. Driving in runs and hitting with runners in scoring position have been problems for Byrd this year. He has only 25 RBI and is batting .200 (22-for-110) with men in scoring position.
C Geovany Soto is coming home after a rough trip, during which he went 2-for-16. However, Soto picked things up in the three games at San Francisco, hitting his 14th home run of the season Monday and getting two RBI Tuesday before going 0-for-2 with a walk Wednesday.
RHP Carlos Marmol has given up no hits and no runs in his last five appearances, covering five innings. During that time, Marmol has walked none and struck out six, notching three saves. After briefly losing his closer's job following a spate of wildness in July, Marmol has rebounded to earn 12 saves in 13 opportunities.
By The Numbers:
2—Hits by the Cubs on Wednesday, their lowest hit total of the season and the fewest since they had two against the Giants last Sept. 21.
Quote To Note:
"I'm on board with ruining (the other team's) day every day. But you don't start a season out wanting to have spoiler behind your club's name late in the year."
—Manager Mike Quade, on the Cubs being spoilers.
RHP Marcos Mateo (strained right forearm) went on the 15-day disabled list July 5.
RHP Andrew Cashner (mild right rotator cuff strain) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to April 6. He began a throwing program April 22, and he threw off a mound for the first time May 2. He threw batting practice May 10, and he was rehabbing in Arizona in mid-May. He had a setback May 16, and he was shut down. He was transferred to the 60-day DL on May 29. Cashner had hoped to begin playing catch July 1, but that schedule was delayed by 10 days. He threw off a mound Aug. 1 and Aug. 3. He began a rehab assignment with Class AA Tennessee on Aug. 23, and he made his second rehab start Aug. 26. He is due to pitch for Tennessee on Aug. 29, then make an appearance for Class AAA Iowa before possibly rejoining the Cubs as a reliever.
RHP Brian Schlitter (strained right forearm) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 22, and he was transferred to the 60-day DL on May 24. The timetable for his return was unknown.