Cubs-Pirates Preview

So far, not so good for the Pittsburgh Pirates in what could be a telling stretch of 10 games against fellow National League Central contenders.

Going into a series opener Monday against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park, Pittsburgh has lost seven of nine, including two in a row against St. Louis in a three-game home series.

It’s the first time the Pirates have lost two in a row against a divisional opponent — and there are more of those games upcoming. After three against the Cubs, Pittsburgh goes to St. Louis for four more against the Cardinals.

The Pirates are struggling to get all parts of their game going at once. On Sunday, their bullpen faltered as they blew a three-run lead in a 6-4 loss to the Cardinals.

“You give these young men an opportunity to pitch. To think they’re going to pitch perfect, clean innings for an entire season, you’re pretty naive,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said of his young bullpen.

“There are going to be challenges the league’s going to throw at them, that hitters are going to throw at them.”

In addition, after Sunday’s game it was learned that closer Felipe Vazquez, who had his third blown save in as many opportunities, has left forearm discomfort.

The Pirates already were without catcher Francisco Cervelli, who had flu symptoms, and starter Ivan Nova is questionable for his Tuesday turn against the Cubs because of a ligament problem in his pitching index finger.

Pittsburgh (28-24) has exceeded many predictions by contending in the NL Central through two months but has fallen to fourth.

The Pirates will have one advantage Monday over the third-place Cubs (27-22). Chicago played a national TV game Sunday night — an 8-3 win over San Francisco, breaking open a game that was tied 3-3 after the first inning — and had to then travel late that night and play an early afternoon game on the Memorial Day holiday.

Chicago had lost three of four before Sunday.

Chicago left-hander Mike Montgomery (0-1, 5.33 ERA) is scheduled to face Pittsburgh right-hander Chad Kuhl (4-2, 4.20) on Monday.

Montgomery will be making a spot start. He has pitched 25 1/3 innings in relief, the most among Chicago relievers.

The Cubs’ rotation is in upheaval with Yu Darvish going on the 10-day disabled list because of right triceps tendinitis.

Originally, Tyler Chatwood was on target to start Monday, but he filled in for Darvish on Sunday night.

Montgomery last season was 5-5 with a 4.15 ERA in 14 starts. He was supposed to get a start May 19, but it was wiped out because of a rain postponement a couple of nights earlier that changed the rotation.

“It’s a long year,” Montgomery said then. “The next time something pops up, I’ll be ready for that, too.”

Darvish’s injury has popped up, but Montgomery already was tailoring himself to be called upon should a starting spot open.

“I have to put myself in a position to be in that conversation, and I’ve done that the last couple of weeks,” he said. “To keep doing that moving forward is what I’m focused on.”

Montgomery is 1-0 with a 1.98 ERA in six career appearances (one start) against Pittsburgh.

Kuhl is 3-1 in his past seven starts. At PNC Park, he is 2-0 with a 4.28 ERA in five starts, with the Pirates 4-1 in those games.

One of those no-decisions and team wins came Wednesday, when Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati 5-4 in 12 innings. Kuhl pitched six-plus innings, giving up one run (on a homer) and five hits with six strikeouts and one walk.

Against the Cubs, Kuhl is 1-4 with an 8.23 ERA in seven career starts.