The Pirates' dominance at PNC Park played a big role in their early success, but recent struggles in Pittsburgh - especially in series openers - has caused them to lose grip of a wild-card spot.
Given A.J. Burnett's history against the Cubs, coupled with Chicago's woes on the road and in Travis Wood's starts - regardless of the venue - the Pirates appear to have a good chance to turn things around in Friday night's opener.
After going 11-6 in openers in its first 17 home series, Pittsburgh (72-64) has lost the first game in each of its last five sets at PNC Park. The Pirates have dropped 10 of 17 overall in Pittsburgh after boasting a major league-best 35-17 home record on Aug. 8. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh, which had a 3 1/2-game cushion over St. Louis for the NL's second wild card a month ago, is now 1 1/2 games behind the Cardinals.
The Pirates suffered a letdown in losing Monday's opener to lowly Houston, but rebounded to win the next two. With Wednesday's 6-3 victory, Pittsburgh matched last season's win total.
It now turns its attention to facing a Cubs team that has lost 17 of 18 away from Chicago and arrives in Pittsburgh after serving up 15 homers in being swept in a four-game series in Washington.
Burnett (15-5, 3.63 ERA) has been doing his part against the Cubs (51-86), throwing 14 1-3 scoreless innings in winning his two starts in the season series.
In Chicago on July 31, he came within four outs of a no-hitter, allowing only Adrian Cardenas' pinch-hit single in a 5-0 win. The right-hander struck out eight and walked two.
His dominance over the Cubs this year is nothing new, though, as he's recorded a 2.29 ERA in winning his six starts against them since 2004.
Burnett is coming off one of his best outings in a month after posting a 6.29 ERA over a four-start stretch. In Milwaukee on Saturday, he yielded two runs and two hits in 6 2-3 innings, but Pittsburgh lost 3-2 on a Corey Hart's game-ending homer.
The Pirates have lost Burnett's last three starts and four of his last five, after going 17-3 the first 20 times he took the ball.
Pittsburgh's recent struggles behind Burnett, however, are nothing compared to what Chicago is going through with Wood (4-11, 4.64).
The Cubs have lost each of Wood's 10 starts since the All-Star break, with the left-hander going 0-8 with a 6.33 ERA. He didn't pitch poorly against the Pirates on Aug. 1, yielding two runs and three hits in five innings, but was saddled with an 8-4 loss.
There wasn't a victory. Those have been hard to come by for the Cubs.
But there was a spark. That, too, has been almost non-existent.
The Cubs lost their sixth in a row Thursday night, falling 9-2 to the Washington Nationals.
The Cubs fell to 51-86, putting them on pace to lose 102 games. But at least things got a little interesting as the Cubs got a little feisty in defeat.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, bench coach Jamie Quirk got thrown out of the game after yelling at Nats third-base coach Bo Porter, who walked toward the Cubs' third-base dugout and jawed back.
The Cubs were upset about the National stealing bases and swinging at a 3-0 pitch while ahead 7-2.
In the bottom of the sixth, rookie reliever Lendy Castillo threw inside to Nats rookie Bryce Harper, prompting the benches to empty. Catcher Steve Clevenger was tossed, as was reliever Manny Corpas, who had run in from the bullpen with his teammates.
"You're up 7-2 and Lendy Castillo is pitching," Clevenger said about what started the whole mess in the fifth. "It's 3-0. You don't swing 3-0 in that situation. But, you know, things happen."
Umpire crew chief Jerry Layne told a pool reporter he initially threw out Quirk and no one else because he thought Quirk started the trouble.
"Quirk was ejected for screaming out obscenities at the third-base coach," Layne told the reporter. "That was the ejection for the coach. The fracas was started because all that stuff happened, and that was instigated by Quirk screaming out at Porter."
In the end, it was another loss and another series sweep suffered by the Cubs.
"It's probably one of the biggest butt whippings I've ever gotten in my career as a coach or a player," manager Dale Sveum said.
LF Alfonso Soriano committed his first error of the season in the third inning when he ran in for Bryce Harper's flyball and dropped it. Soriano had been the only qualifying major league left fielder without an error this season. The error came on Soriano's 221st chance of the season.
SS Starlin Castro went 2-for-4 with a double and a triple. He has a four-game hitting streak, going 7-for-16. He also is two hits short of 500 for his career at age 22. The Cubs say only 27 players in major league history have reached 500 hits before their 23rd birthday. The only active such player is Alex Rodriguez.
1B Anthony Rizzo homered in the first inning, giving him two home runs in two straight at-bats—he also hit one in his final at-bat Wednesday night. Rizzo went 3-for-4, raising his average to .298, and he has 12 home runs. He also had good words to say about Nationals phenom Bryce Harper. "He plays the game the right way," Rizzo said. "He plays hard. He's real exciting to watch."
C Steve Clevenger, a rookie, found himself in the middle of a melee in the sixth inning, when he was ejected from the game along with RHP Manny Corpas, who ran in from the bullpen after Cubs RHP Lendy Castillo threw inside to Bryce Harper. "I was just trying to break everybody up," Clevenger said.
RHP Justin Germano lasted four innings, giving up seven hits and seven runs, six earned. Only one of the eight starts Germano has made has been a quality start. The Cubs acquired him in a trade with Boston in July, but since they're strapped for starting pitchers, he remains in the rotation.
By The Numbers:
31-9—Run differential in the Nationals' four-game sweep of the Cubs.
Quote To Note:
"I don't remember getting manhandled that bad in any kind of series I've ever been a part of."
—Manager Dale Sveum on his Cubs getting swept by the Nationals.