The Chicago Cubs have been one of baseball’s best teams within the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, but venturing outside of their historic ballpark lately hasn’t produced a whole lot of success.
Facing the Pittsburgh Pirates - home or away - certainly has.
The Cubs will look for their ninth win against the Pirates in 10 tries this season and their fourth in a row at PNC Park when they open a three-game series on Friday.
Chicago (28-19) is on top of the NL Central mostly due to its 19-8 record at Wrigley, which included a recent 8-2 homestand that featured two victories in three games against Pittsburgh.
But for the Pirates (22-25), winning just one game against the Cubs was a step forward. Chicago had won nine straight against Pittsburgh dating back to last season, including a three-game sweep at PNC Park from April 7-10.
Those were the first three road games of the year for the Cubs, but they’re just 6-11 away from home since, and haven’t won a road series since leaving Pittsburgh. They began their current six-game road swing by dropping two of three in Houston, including a 5-3 loss on Wednesday in which the Cubs had only five hits.
“It’s not that easy on the road,” manager Lou Piniella told the team’s official Web site. “You have to hold onto leads, and when you get leads, you have to tack on some runs. Unfortunately in the last couple games, we haven’t been able to do that.”
Chicago will send ace Carlos Zambrano (6-1, 2.45 ERA) to the mound in the series opener hoping for a better performance than he provided Saturday against the Pirates.
Zambrano had his shortest outing of the season, pitching four innings while allowing five runs - four earned. He didn’t receive a decision in Pittsburgh’s 7-6 win, and seemed to feel like his tough start was merely an aberration.
“My team is in first place and I have a good record,” Zambrano said. “What do I have to be frustrated (about)?”
Zambrano is 5-1 with a 3.11 ERA in eight career starts in Pittsburgh.
Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee (.132) and former Pirate Aramis Ramirez (.263) haven’t done much against Pittsburgh this season, but left fielder Alfonso Soriano certainly has. He’s hitting .448 (13-for-29) with four homers and eight RBIs in six games.
Zach Duke (2-2, 4.23) will start for Pittsburgh, duplicating the matchup from six days earlier when he faced Zambrano. Duke hasn’t been dominant this season, but he’s been the Pirates’ best starter. He went 6 1-3 innings and allowed four runs on Saturday
Duke has pitched well against the Cubs in Pittsburgh, going 1-0 with a 1.74 ERA. His best outing of the year came against the Cubs at home on April 9, when he went seven innings, allowing one run while striking out six. Duke, however, didn’t get a decision in the Pirates’ 6-4 loss in 15 innings.
Considering Pittsburgh has the NL’s worst pitching staff, it’s relied on its offense to stay competitive. When the Pirates score four or fewer runs, they’re 6-21.
But they’re 16-4 when they score at least five, and they’ve won their last eight under those circumstances, including an 8-4 victory over Milwaukee on Thursday.
“We got a few runs early, and a lot of times if you don’t do that you struggle,” said center fielder Nate McLouth.
Pittsburgh’s outfield of Xavier Nady (.364, seven RBIs), McLouth (.308) and Jason Bay have all fared well against Zambrano. Bay is hitting .333 (12-for-36) with five homers and 16 RBIs versus the right-hander.