The Pittsburgh Pirates surpassed expectations for most of the first four months of the year. Suddenly, they're back on track for another losing season.
The Pirates enter a game as a sub-.500 team for the first time in more than six weeks, looking to avoid a season-worst seventh consecutive defeat as they face the surging Chicago Cubs on Thursday night at PNC Park.After surprisingly playing like a postseason contender for much of the year, Pittsburgh (54-55) dropped 6 1/2 games behind NL Central-leading Milwaukee and below .500 for the first time since June 21 with Wednesday's 1-0 loss.The Pirates, who last posted a winning record in 1992, have been outscored 40-21 while recording a 6.54 ERA during their season worst-tying six-game skid."You think it gets hard, it gets a little harder," said manager Clint Hurdle, whose club sat in a first-place tie with St. Louis as recently July 25. "You've just got to keep playing and you've got to just keep doing the things that are important to us to win the ballgame."Pittsburgh is looking to avoid a four-game sweep to a Chicago team which entered this series not having won more than three consecutive games all season. The Pirates had won each of the teams' three previous series this year.The Cubs (46-65) have won four games in a row overall while batting .298."More concentration," shortstop Starlin Castro told the team's official website. "Everybody tries to help the team. We have concentration and we play hard every day."Castro, who has recorded three hits in each of the first three games of this series, provided all of Chicago's offense Wednesday with his fourth homer of the year. Carlos Pena and Darwin Barney each had two hits while the rest of the lineup went 0 for 22.Castro is batting .451 in 12 games against the Pirates this season, including 14 for 28 at PNC Park. The Cubs are 14-4 this year when Castro has at least three hits.He looks to continue his hot hitting against James McDonald (7-5, 4.17 ERA), coming off one of his worst performances. He had gone 4-0 with a 2.64 ERA in his previous eight starts and hadn't allowed more than three runs in 12 straight before yielding five in as many innings Saturday, giving up a career-worst 10 hits during a 7-4 loss at Philadelphia.McDonald, though, is 3-1 with a 2.31 ERA in his last nine outings at home. The hard-throwing right-hander hasn't had the same kind of success against the Cubs, going 0-1 with a 5.06 ERA in two career starts.Castro is 2 for 6 lifetime against McDonald while Aramis Ramirez, the only current Cub to have taken him deep, is 2 for 2.Continuing to eat up innings in Chicago's rotation, meanwhile, is Rodrigo Lopez (2-3, 4.40), who looks to regroup after getting hit hard during his last start.The 35-year-old right-hander surrendered six runs and eight hits in a season-worst 4 1/3 innings of Saturday's 13-5 defeat at St. Louis. He gave up three runs in six innings but didn't receive a decision during a 7-4 loss at PNC Park on July 8 opposite McDonald.Derrek Lee has struggled in his career against Lopez, going 1 for 9, and he won't have to worry about batting against him Thursday. Lee was a late scratch due to a bruised left hand.Fellow newcomer Ryan Ludwick, hitless in eight at-bats since debuting with the Pirates on Monday, has gone 5 for 15 with a homer off Lopez.The Pirates had taken seven of nine from the Cubs at home prior to this series.