Pirates brace for surging Cubs

PITTSBURGH — Not too many weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates felt they had a realistic shot of catching the Chicago Cubs in the National League Central.

Subsequently, the Pirates (65-72) wilted while the Cubs (75-61) took a stronghold atop the division.

Even though Pittsburgh is coming off a 3-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds while Chicago lost to the Atlanta Braves 5-1 on Sunday, there is little doubt what the teams are playing for as they open a four-game series Monday at PNC Park.

Chicago, 32-16 since the All-Star break, is preparing for the postseason.

Sunday was something of an exception for the Cubs’ offense. Chicago is averaging 7 1/2 runs over the past 20 games, including six contests with more than 12 runs.

The Cubs are just 8-7 against the Pirates this season, but its three-game sweep of Pittsburgh last week at Wrigley Field by a combined 27-5 effectively took the Pirates out of consideration for an already tenuous shot at the postseason.

The Pirates, trailing the Colorado Rockies by 7 1/2 games for the second NL wild card, now are looking to the future.

“The Cubs, or whoever we play, I think it’s good any game that a youngster gets out there and gets experience and gets at-bats and puts himself in tough situations,” Pittsburgh shortstop Jordy Mercer said.

The Pirates have yet to make September call-ups, but they have been using a few rookies and young players regularly, and a few more are getting some playing time because of recent injuries.

Rookie right-hander Chad Kuhl (6-10, 4.54 ERA), who is scheduled for the Labor Day start, is one of those younger Pirates and was one of the losing pitchers in Chicago’s home sweep of Pittsburgh last week.

He gave up three runs and seven hits over 5 1/3 innings Tuesday, with three walks and seven strikeouts, but lacked run support in a 4-1 Chicago win.

That was one of his Kuhl’s better outings against the Cubs. He has never beaten Chicago, going 0-1 with an 11.07 ERA in six career starts.

Kuhl and Jake Arrieta — the Cubs’ Monday starter — each pitched five shutout innings Tuesday before Chicago scored three in the six.

“I fell behind a few guys, and they hit some good pitches,” Kuhl said. “But I’ve learned you don’t have to make anything better. You don’t have to make the pitches nastier. Just keep rolling.”

Kuhl is 4-4 with a 3.44 ERA over his past 12 starts. He has allowed no more than two earned runs in 11 of his past 17 starts. His season has been anything but cookie-cutter.

“If you go into a game with expectations for Chad Kuhl, I think you’re missing the boat,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “You need to just sit back, watch him pitch and see where he takes you.”

Arrieta (14-8, 3.36 ERA) pitched six shutout innings and allowed just two hits Tuesday. And that was on what he considered an off night.

“I didn’t have great stuff tonight,” he said. “When I came out of the game, I told (manager Joe Maddon) that was strictly just competing. Tried to mix some things and keep them off-balance at times. They fouled off a lot of good pitches.”

Maddon agreed with the assessment.

“Pitch number (97) got up there, but give him credit, man,” Maddon said. “He’ll be the first one to tell you he did not have his normal command that he’s had the last several outings, but when you compete like that, you deserve the win. He got it. That’s what I saw.”

With that game being a possible exception, Arrieta has seemed more like his 2015 Cy Young Award-winning self in recent weeks. Since the All-Star break, he is 6-1 with a 1.59 ERA and eight quality starts in nine outings.

Arrieta, who leads the Cubs in wins, is 10-5 with a 3.02 ERA in his career against Pittsburgh.