Mired in their longest losing streak of the season, the Pirates try to avoid a fifth consecutive defeat to the Cubs on Saturday.
After suffering a three-game home sweep at the hands of Chicago last weekend, Pittsburgh (72-71) kicked off a seven-game trip with three losses to NL Central-leading Cincinnati. The Pirates saw their woes continue Friday as their skid reached seven, falling 7-4 in the first of four at Wrigley Field.
Loser of 17 of 22, Pittsburgh - batting .204 and outscored 38-18 during its losing streak - is one of a handful of teams within a few games of the second NL wild-card berth.
"They're playing for their lives right now," Cubs manager Dale Sveum told the team's official website. "Every game to them is a playoff game, and every game to us is a playoff game in our players' minds, because they're talking about staying away from 100 losses."
The Cubs (57-87) have enjoyed playing the role of spoiler. Chicago has won six of seven while averaging 5.1 runs, significantly higher than its season mark of 3.8.
Starlin Castro went 2 for 4 with a three-run homer and season best-tying four RBIs on Friday. The two-time All-Star has given Pittsburgh fits, as five of his 13 homers and 16 of his 75 RBIs have come in his last 12 games against the Pirates.
"We all know what kind of hitter he is right now," Sveum said of Castro, who's batting .398 lifetime against the Pirates at home.
Looking to send Pittsburgh to another loss and making his Cubs debut is Jason Berken, who was claimed off waivers last week after Baltimore designated him for assignment. The right-hander will fill in for Jeff Samardzija, who was shut down after reaching his innings limit.
"It's a pretty awesome opportunity," said Berken, who went 5-6 with a 3.50 ERA over 26 starts with Triple-A Norfolk. "I'm pretty excited. I had a pretty good year in Triple-A this year, and the work paid off in the end.
"I think the change of scenery and being up here gives you a little bit extra for the last month. I anticipate throwing well. I'm feeling good."
In his only big league appearance this year, Berken was tagged for seven runs - two earned - and six hits in one inning of relief during the Orioles' 14-3 loss to Texas on May 7. He pitched exclusively out of the bullpen over the previous two seasons after going 6-12 with a 6.54 ERA over 24 starts as a rookie in 2009.
The Pirates counter with Wandy Rodriguez (10-13, 3.72 ERA). The left-hander went 0-4 with a 5.17 ERA in his first five starts since being acquired from Houston but has gone 2-0 with a 1.37 ERA in his last three.
He gave up three runs and three hits over 6 2-3 innings Monday in a 4-3, 14-inning loss to the Reds.
Rodriguez went 6-7 with a 3.84 ERA over 21 starts versus Chicago while with the Astros.
Alfonso Soriano is 4 for 38 (.105) with a homer and 12 strikeouts against Rodriguez. Castro hasn't fared much better, going 3 for 17 (.176).
Pittsburgh second baseman Neil Walker, fourth on the team with 14 homers and 69 RBIs, had missed the previous 15 games with a back injury before striking out as a pinch-hitter Friday. He could return to the starting lineup Saturday.