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.
"At this time of year, it's all about winning,' Alex Presley said after replacing Jose Tabata (left foot) and scoring three runs Wednesday. "You need everybody doing everything they can do to help the team win.'
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.
Wood has limited Andrew McCutchen to a double and three walks in seven at_bats, not bad considering the All-Star center fielder is hitting a major league-best .422 off southpaws. McCutchen is batting .414 with a solo homer and eight walks against the Cubs this season.
Chicago's Anthony Rizzo has two home runs in six games versus Pittsburgh, and has been one of the few things to get excited about in an otherwise forgettable season for the Cubs, losers of six in a row and 14 of 18.
Rizzo hit his 12th homer Thursday, and is batting .406 with three home runs, three doubles and five RBIs in his last eight games.
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