Pirates have their work cut out against Cubs

PITTSBURGH — Neal Huntington was asked on his weekly radio show Sunday whether the Pittsburgh Pirates might want to scale their hopes back this season from making the playoffs to simply finishing with a winning record.

The team's general manager hedged big-time, declining to buy into such a change in scope, although he did begin to talk about the offseason in a way that suggested the Pirates might not be able to claw their way into a National League wild-card spot.

Realistically, finishing over .500 is probably the better target, but hardly an easy one, especially considering that the Chicago Cubs come to PNC Park to start a four-game series Monday, followed by a trip by Pittsburgh to St. Louis next weekend to close the regular season.

Pittsburgh has lost two games in a row to sit one game under .500 at 77-78. It is 4 1/2 games out of the second NL wild-card playoff spot, same as Miami, and would also have to pass St. Louis, with just those seven games remaining.

Chicago, of course, leads the major leagues with 99 wins after a 3-1 victory over St. Louis Sunday night. The Cubs have won five of their past six and — in case the Pirates have their eyes on pulling off a sweep to bolster their dwindling playoff hopes — they have not lost more than two games in a row since early July.

In addition, Pittsburgh is a disappointing 37-40 at PNC Park — “We'd like to get back to being dominant at home,” Huntington said — while the Cubs are 43-32 on the road.

The Cubs are scheduled to start Kyle Hendricks (15-8, 2.06 ERA) in Monday's series opener. He leads the major leagues in ERA and is 11-2 with a 1.37 ERA over his past 17 outings, including 16 starts. He has beaten Pittsburgh twice this season, allowing one earned run in 13 innings, with both games coming at Wrigley Field.

Teammate Jon Lester, who started the Cubs game Sunday, told the Chicago Tribune last week that Hendricks should win the NL Cy Young Award.

“If I had a vote, (Hendricks) would be my vote,” Lester told the Tribune. “I get to see him every day. I see what he does, how he goes about it, how he prepares, how he goes out and executes. He's my guy. He's who I'd vote for right now, tomorrow, the next day, whenever.”

After Hendricks, it doesn't get any easier for Pittsburgh. The projected Cubs starters the remainder of the series are John Lackey (10-8), Jake Arrieta (18-7) and rookie Rob Zastryzny (1-0).

The Pirates are expected to give rookie Chad Kuhl (5-3, 3.73 ERA) the start Monday. He has won his past two starts, allowing a total of three earned runs while pitching six innings in each of the two wins.

Pittsburgh has won nine of the 12 games he has started.

He, like so many pitchers, has struggled against the Cubs, going 0-1 in two starts with an 8.59 ERA. One of those losses was a 3-0 game against Hendricks Aug. 30.

Pittsburgh's probable starters the rest of the series are Ryan Vogelsong (3-6), rookie Jameson Taillon (4-4) and Ivan Nova (12-8).