With their main opposition facing each other, the Pirates hope to make up some ground when they visit the Chicago Cubs to start a four-game set on Friday.
Pittsburgh (72-70) has lost six in a row to drop to fourth place in the wild-card standings, a skid that began with a sweep by the Cubs (56-87) last weekend at home and continued with three more losses in Cincinnati. While the Pirates trail Atlanta by eight games for the top wild-card spot, they are just a handful of games behind the Cardinals and Dodgers for the second wild card.
The Cardinals are in Los Angeles for a four-game series this weekend, so if Pittsburgh can take advantage of the Cubs while those teams split, the Pirates could gain ground or even move back into playoff position.
Those are the kind of breaks the Pirates need if they are going to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1992. While getting swept by the NL Central-leading Reds is nothing new to most teams, losing all three against the Cubs last weekend hurt the Pirates.
They managed only seven runs in each series, falling 2-1 to the Reds on Wednesday. After losing 12-2 to the Cubs last Friday, Pittsburgh has been outscored by just seven runs in its last five losses.
Pittsburgh has scored just 40 runs while losing 10 of 12. The Pirates were missing Pedro Alvarez on Wednesday because of an injured right wrist, and there was no word on whether he might be available Friday.
Alvarez, who leads Pittsburgh with 27 home runs, is 1 for 15 with seven strikeouts over his last three games.
James McDonald (12-7, 3.93 ERA) takes the mound for the Pirates after not receiving a decision in Saturday's 4-3 loss to Chicago. He gave up three runs and seven hits in 5 2-3 innings and has a 6.17 ERA in two starts this season against the Cubs.
Chicago is in the midst of one of its better stretches in what has been a forgettable season. After sweeping Pittsburgh, the Cubs took two of three from Houston. That followed a stretch where Chicago lost nine of 11.
Rookie left-hander Chris Rusin (0-2, 5.73) makes his fourth career start Friday. He faced the Pirates on Sunday, giving up five hits and one run in five innings while not earning a decision in a 4-2 win.
This is the start of a 10-game homestand for the Cubs, who are 34-34 at home and 31 games under .500 away from Chicago.
These teams have split 12 matchups this season and Pittsburgh has won eight of its last 12 in Chicago, taking two of three there July 30-Aug. 1.
This is the start of 20 games in 20 days for Pittsburgh, which had its last off day of the season Thursday.
The Cubs have made it their stated goal to avoid a 100-loss season. That looked impossible after an 0-4 start to their just concluded road trip, but they righted themselves and finished 5-5 on the three-city journey.
Friday, they begin a 10-game homestand against the Pirates, Reds and Cardinals. With a record of 56-87, they need just seven more wins to avoid the century mark.
Whatever the motivation, manager Dale Sveum and his coaching staff continue to drive home the fundamentals, even in September.
With a roster full of young players, it's never too late -- or too early for 2013 -- to focus on the basics.
The Cubs' overall defense has been sound for most of the year. However, Sveum said he was going to address a specific baserunning mistake this week. In Tuesday's 1-0 loss at Houston, shortstop Starlin Castro failed to score on what looked to be a sacrifice fly because September call-up Dave Sappelt was thrown out at third base before Castro could reach home plate.
"Some things aren't acceptable," Sveum said. "That's the bottom line. I'm still amazed at it."
Sveum placed the blame squarely on Sappelt, not Castro, because the flyball went only to medium center field and Sappelt had no good reason to run.
"Those ones baffle you," Sveum said.
The Cubs also have two rookie catchers, Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger, and Sveum said the two have made progress on sticking to game plans and calling the right pitches in the right situations.
LF Alfonso Soriano enters the weekend with 29 home runs and 96 RBI, virtually assuring him of a 30-homer, 100-RBI season. There was even talk in Chicago this week that Soriano would be an MVP candidate if he played for a winning team. "I don't want to talk about MVP," he said. "I just want to talk about my defense. … That makes me more happy because I've improved my fielding and am proving to other people I can be a good outfielder."
RF David DeJesus is coming off a poor road trip during which he went 4-for-24. Manager Dale Sveum has not started DeJesus against some left-handed pitchers. DeJesus entered Wednesday's game at Houston as a pinch hitter. Out of the leadoff spot this season, he has an on-base percentage .362, third best in the National League.
RHP Jaye Chapman, obtained in a trade with Atlanta, has pitched four scoreless innings in four games since his call-up Sept. 4 from Class AA (Kodak) Tennessee. Chapman's "power changeup," as manager Dale Sveum calls it, has enabled him to have success against both left-handed and right-handed hitters. Left-handers are 0-for-6 against him while right-handed batters are 1-for-8. Chapman made his major league debut this month.
RHP Jason Berken will make his Cubs debut in Saturday's game against the Pirates. Berken, whom the Cubs recently picked up off waivers from Baltimore, replaces RHP Jeff Samardzija in the rotation. Samardzija has been shut down because he has thrown 174 2/3 innings in his first full season as a major league starting pitcher.
2B Darwin Barney takes an eight-game hitting streak into Friday's series opener against Pittsburgh. He is 9-for-30 (.300) in the stretch. Barney's on-base percentage is a tick below .300, at .299. His consecutive-games errorless streak at second base is at an NL-record 128 games, 13 shy of the major league record, set by Placido Polanco of Detroit in 2007.
By The Numbers: 45-26—Cubs' record when they've scored at least four runs in a game. On the flip side, they are 11-61 when scoring three or fewer runs.
Quote To Note: "I think I've proved a lot of people wrong." —LF Alfonso Soriano on his improved defense this year.