In the thick of the playoff race, the Pittsburgh Pirates have been piling up wins over the last week.
Much of that success has come against the slumping Chicago Cubs.In the midst of their longest winning streak over the Cubs in nearly a quarter-century, the Pirates look to win for the eighth time in nine games Saturday night and send visiting Chicago to an eighth straight loss.Pittsburgh (78-69) maintained its 1 1/2-game lead over Milwaukee for the NL's second wild-card spot with Friday's 7-3 win in the series opener. NL batting leader Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer each had three singles at the top of the batting order and No. 3 hitter Andrew McCutchen added two hits.The Pirates, 2 1/2 games behind NL Central-leading St. Louis, improved to 7-1 since Sept. 5."We're playing really good baseball right now," said Mercer, who is 12 for his last 29 (.414). "Even though we've been scoring runs, it always comes down to pitching and defense."Four of the Pirates' wins in their last eight have come over the Cubs (64-83), whom they swept in a three-game series at Wrigley Field last weekend. The Pirates are averaging 6.8 runs while batting .335 in the four meetings this month, and their seven-game winning streak in the series is their longest in a single season since an eight-game run in 1990.McCutchen has hit safely in 10 of 11 games against the Cubs, batting .422 with 12 RBIs. He now has five consecutive two-hit game against Chicago at PNC Park.Harrison, who has raised his average to .318, is 10 for 18 in his last four versus the Cubs, and 8 for his last 12 against left-handers. He did not face the left-handed Felix Doubront (1-1, 2.25 ERA) in last week's matchup at Wrigley to rest an injured ankle.Doubront permitted two runs over five innings in last Saturday's 5-0 loss to the Pirates in his second start for the Cubs since being acquired from Boston. McCutchen and Starling Marte each went 1 for 3 off him.The Pirates counter with Jeff Locke (7-4, 3.60), who allowed a run and three hits in seven innings in Monday's 6-4 win over Philadelphia. He retired the first 10 batters he faced and the final 10, matching a career high with nine strikeouts while not issuing a walk.Of his 92 pitches, only 25 were balls -- a significant improvement from six days earlier when 40 of his 86 offerings were balls. He allowed five runs while walking five over three-plus innings in that 6-4 loss to St. Louis. That appears to be just an aberration, however, as the lefty has a 1.38 ERA in his other four starts since Aug. 16.Locke will see the Cubs for the first time this season after going 1-0 with a 1.42 ERA in two starts against them in 2013.Chicago has been outscored 55-13 during its seven-game skid, batting .128 with runners in scoring position while allowing opponents to hit .329 in such situations. The Cubs, who are expected to again be without Jorge Soler as he attends the birth of his first child, haven't lost eight in a row since July 31-Aug. 8, 2012.One positive for Chicago on Friday was that rookies Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara each homered. Baez had hit .103 with 18 strikeouts in his previous 10 games, while Alcantara batted .130 with 29 players left on base in his past 14."Our young guys are fully aware of the race going on at the moment," manager Rick Renteria said. "We're making sure they go out there and give themselves a chance to win by playing the game a certain way."
The Pirates have enjoyed a stretch where they have played above .500 ball since the All Star Break. 4 out of the last 5 times that the Pirates have had winning records in the second half of the season, they have made the playoffs with the only season that they didn't make it coming in 2006. Entering Saturday, the Pirates had a 1.5 game lead for the second NL Wild Card spot.