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.
|July 28, 2012||Matt Garza||60-Day DL||Stress reaction, right elbow|
|July 21, 2012||Matt Garza||Day-to-Day||Left game - right triceps cramp|
|June 16, 2012||Ryan Dempster||15-Day DL||Right lat tightness|
|June 13, 2012||Ian Stewart||60-Day DL||Left wrist surgery|
|June 02, 2012||Blake Parker||60-Day DL||Stress reaction in right elbow|
|June 02, 2012||Blake Parker||60-Day DL||Stress reaction in right elbow|
|August 31, 2012||Jeff Karstens||Day-to-Day||Hip flexor|
|August 27, 2012||Neil Walker||Day-to-Day||Lower back stiffness|
|August 25, 2012||Jose Tabata||Day-to-Day||Left game - left groin discomfort|
|August 25, 2012||Chad Qualls||15-Day DL||Left toe sprain|
|August 19, 2012||Starling Marte||15-Day DL||Strained right oblique|
|August 15, 2012||Neil Walker||Day-to-Day||Dislocated finger|
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Travis Wood hadn't won a game in more than two months. The worst defensive game by the Pittsburgh Pirates in more than a quarter century gave the struggling Chicago Cubs pitcher all the help he needed.
Wood gave up one hit over six innings, and the Cubs won 12-2 Friday night to stop a six-game losing streak.
"The pitches were working good and the defense was outstanding behind me," Wood said.
The Pirates, not so much.
Playing meaningful September baseball for the first time in 20 years, Pittsburgh hardly looked like a playoff team, committing seven errors and leaving typically chatty manager Clint Hurdle at a loss for words.
"Our worst game of the season," said Hurdle, who was ejected in the sixth inning. "We stunk tonight. There's always a sense of pride you take out on the field to play your best every night you go out there. Sometimes your best stinks. That's where we were tonight."
Wood (5-12) ended a streak of 10 straight winless starts by striking out five and walking three. He was aided by a spectacular catch from centerfielder Brett Jackson to end the sixth inning. Jackson crashed into the fence tracking down a deep flyball from Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen to cut short the Pirates' only real rally attempt.
Jackson laid on the ground for several minutes before walking off under his own power, though he was immediately replaced by Tony Campana . The Cubs led by seven runs at the time, but Jackson said he never considered just letting it go.
"It was a big moment in the game for Travis and for us as a team," said Jackson, who suffered a bruised knee and is unlikely to play Saturday. "We'd lost six in a row. Seven runs didn't seem like enough at the time. We were going to win that game today."
Starlin Castro had three hits, including the 500th of his career, and drove in four runs for the Cubs. Alfonso Soriano added three hits and three RBI as Chicago took full advantage of one of the worst defensive nights in Pittsburgh's 130-year history.
The Pirates had not made seven errors in a game since 1985 and finished one shy of the club record set in 1939. It was the first seven-error game in the majors since Atlanta in a 2004 loss to Colorado.
A.J. Burnett (15-6) struggled against one of baseball's worst batting orders, though having his teammates give the Cubs extra out after extra out certainly didn't help. Burnett allowed seven runs - three earned - and eight hits in five innings. He struck out four and walked one.
Pittsburgh's problems started early. Chicago took a 1-0 lead in the first thanks in part to an error by Pittsburgh rookie second baseman Brock Holt .
Things quickly got worse.
Chicago made it 4-0 in the third with plenty of assistance from left fielder Starling Marte .
The rookie, activated from the disabled list earlier in the day, mishandled a single by Soriano with one on and two outs. The ball caromed off his glove away from him and in his haste to recover, Marte threw wildly in the vicinity of third base. The ball sailed all the way to the backstop, allowing Anthony Rizzo and Soriano to move into scoring position. Moments later Marte was in trouble again when he booted a sharply hit ball by Castro. Rizzo and Soriano scored easily and Castro - who advanced to second on the error - dashed home on Steve Clevenger 's single.
"It was nice to come in here against one of the better teams in the National League and put it on them pretty good," Chicago manager Dale Sveum said. "That was good for us, especially from where we were just coming from and for the mental state of the guys in that clubhouse."
Hurdle tried to give his team some life, getting thrown out for the fourth time this season for arguing a close play at third base in which umpire Gary Darling ruled Jackson beat Josh Harrison 's throw on a fielders' choice.
The Pirates responded by allowing three more runs thanks in part to throwing errors by first baseman Gaby Sanchez and catcher Rod Barajas . Two more errors in the seventh helped the Cubs push the lead to 12-0.
At one point a fan in an exasperated PNC Park crowd started yelling "error! error!" at the official scorer on a cleanly hit single by Chicago's Tony Campana in the eighth.
Instead of history, the Pirates finished with only seven errors, the most since an 8-4 loss to St. Louis on Sept. 16, 1985.
"It was just one of those games, words can't even really describe it," Harrison said. "I really don't know what to say but put it behind us and come back tomorrow."
Wood, who hadn't won since beating the Mets on July 6, didn't let the good fortune go to waste. He retired 14 of the first 15 batters he faced and didn't give up a hit until the fifth when Pedro Alvarez 's flyball to center glanced off Jackson's glove as the outfielder smacked into the wall.
NOTES: Castro became the 28th player in major league history to reach 500 hits before his 23rd birthday. The previous player to do it was Alex Rodriguez ... The series continues on Saturday. Chicago's Jeff Samardzija (8-13, 3.91 ERA) will make his final start of the season for the Cubs against Pittsburgh's James McDonald (12-7, 3.90).
Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP