The Chicago Cubs figured the rebuilding project under Theo Epstein would take some time to yield positive results, but they probably didn't envision these types of struggles barely one quarter of the way through its first season.
Chicago looks to avoid losing 10 straight for the first time in more than 15 years as Ryan Dempster tries again for his first victory Friday night in the opener of a three-game set against the host Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Cubs (15-29) have the worst record in the NL after falling 5-1 to Houston on Wednesday, marking their ninth consecutive defeat.
Dempster (0-2, 2.28 ERA) allowed four runs in six innings of a 7-4 loss to the Chicago White Sox on Saturday - his second straight game giving up four runs after allowing two or fewer in each of his first five outings.
The Cubs are 1-6 in his starts, with Dempster making some dubious history along the way. No pitcher has had a better ERA through his first seven starts without a victory since the New York Yankees' Whitey Ford started 0-3 with a 2.03 ERA in 1966.
The right-hander hasn't fared very well against Pittsburgh recently, going 2-5 with a 5.93 ERA since the start of 2010.
The Pirates' offense, though, hasn't provided much of a challenge to opposing pitchers in 2012.
Pittsburgh (20-24) is last in the majors with 126 runs scored, and its .217 average ranks last in the NL. The Pirates have been held to one run or none 14 times after Wednesday's 3-1 loss to the New York Mets.
Any success the Pirates have had mainly can be attributed to a pitching staff that ranks among the MLB leaders with a 3.33 ERA, and A.J. Burnett (2-2, 4.78) takes the hill Friday looking to deliver another solid outing.
Burnett's ERA is inflated because he allowed 12 runs in 2 2-3 innings at St. Louis on May 2, but he's posted a 2.45 ERA while the Pirates have won his three starts since. He gave up two runs in six innings in a 4-3 win Saturday at Detroit.
The right-hander has won his last four starts against the Cubs with a 3.60 ERA, but Chicago has won five of the last seven meetings overall as the NL Central rivals begin their 2012 season series.
The Cubs limped into Pittsburgh for an off-day Thursday, carrying the burden of a nine-game losing streak, their longest in 10 years.
A record of 15-29 offers few bright spots. One of those would be starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija. He's turned in the Cubs' last two quality starts, but he's come away with two losses.
Samardzija is part of a starting staff that is 10-18 with a 4.18 ERA. He seems to know the Cubs have to grind through the tough times.
"This is really going to show our team character here in the long run," Samardzija said. "The next team you play is not going to take it easy on you, and the team after that is not going to take it easy on you.
"You've got to fix it, and fix it quick."
The only solace in the immediate future is that the Cubs have games coming up against the offensively challenged Pirates on the road and the equally hapless Padres at home before heading out on a tough 10-game trip.
Manager Dale Sveum returns for Friday's game. He spent Wednesday in Arizona attending his son's high school graduation. Bench coach Jamie Quirk ran the club Wednesday.
"If we had an answer, and a solution, we'd definitely bring it out," Quirk said. "Right now, it's keep grinding and keep working. Winning is contagious and losing is contagious and right now, we're seeing the bad end of it."
LHP James Russell continues to be the Cubs' most effective reliever. He pitched a scoreless inning Wednesday night, lowering his ERA to 1.80. Russell has stranded all six inherited runners against him this season. He has held opponents scoreless in 18 of his 21 outings.
3B Ian Stewart will return to the lineup Friday after sitting out two games, with the Astros throwing LHPs J.A. Happ and Wandy Rodriguez at the Cubs in the final two games of the Houston series. Stewart has seen his batting average fall to .197. Stewart is 2-for-12 over the last week. All four of his home runs have come against right-handed batters.
RHP Jeff Samardzija hasn't been babied, but he has been backed off and treated cautiously in his first full year as a major league starting pitcher. So it was Wednesday, when acting manager Jamie Quirk removed Samardzija after six innings and 90 pitches. "I said, 'Hey, you have a career. This is your first year starting and we have to watch it, and you have a long career ahead of you. Save some pitches right now,'" Quirk said.
SS Starlin Castro has started all 44 of the Cubs' games at shortstop. There had been talk manager Dale Sveum would move Castro from the No. 3 spot to leadoff (where he thrived last year), but Castro remained in the three-hole in Houston, going 4-for-13. On the downside, he struck out four times in the middle game of the series.
RF David DeJesus takes a three-game hitting streak (4-for-11, one walk) into the weekend at Pittsburgh. After batting .250 in April, DeJesus has a .313 (25-for-80) in May with an on-base percentage of .382. He also has hit safely in 13 of his last 14 games.
By The Numbers:
Minus-46—The Cubs' run differential of minus-46 was worst in the National League entering Thursday. They've scored 155 runs while allowing 201.
Quote To Note:
"What's going on is, we're not hitting with men on base. I can't point out anybody but myself right now. That's something that I need to pick up, and as a team we're hoping to do better at it."
—2B Darwin Barney on the Cubs' .227 batting average with runners in scoring position