After finishing last year with the majors’ worst record, the Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t seem likely to be in contention deep into this season.
Manger Clint Hurdle appears to be making all the difference.
The Pirates can ensure that they’ll enter the All-Star break with a winning record for the first time in 19 years if they win the opener of a three-game set with the visiting Chicago Cubs on Friday night.
Pittsburgh (45-42) has looked almost nothing like the team that concluded 2010 with a major league-low 57 wins and a fourth consecutive last-place finish in the NL Central.
Although their three-game win streak ended with Wednesday’s 8-2 loss to Houston, the third-place Pirates sit just one game behind St. Louis and Milwaukee, and many players credit Hurdle for helping the turnaround.
Pittsburgh, which hasn’t entered the break above .500 since going 49-39 in 1992, can end that drought with just one win this weekend. The Pirates have outscored the Cubs 30-17 en route to taking four of six this season - all at Wrigley Field - and they went 5-1 at home in last year’s series.
The Cubs (36-53), however, are feeling good after snapping a five-game road losing streak by erasing an eight-run deficit and prevailing 10-9 at Washington on Thursday.
Aramis Ramirez(notes), 22 for 55 (.400) with nine homers in his last 15 games, went 2 for 3 with two runs scored and an RBI while Carlos Pena homered for the second time in as many days. Chicago went 6 for 11 with runners in scoring position and is hoping its latest performance is a sign of things to come.
“You’re so proud of them for continuing to play,” manager Mike Quade said. “Now let’s make it easier on ourselves and try to play a little smarter baseball and continue with that kind of effort.”
The Cubs could have a hard time repeating their impressive display at the plate against the Pirates, who rank fifth in the NL with a 3.43 ERA. Pittsburgh’s rotation has been a big part of the team’s resurgence, and with another solid effort out of James McDonald(notes) (5-4, 4.40 ERA), the team’s starters could surpass the MLB-low 34 wins they recorded last season.
Despite walking 25 over 51 1-3 innings in his last nine starts, McDonald has gone 3-1 with a 2.98 ERA, never allowing more than three runs over that span. He was tagged with the loss after yielding three runs and eight hits in five innings in his only previous start against the Cubs, a 5-3 road defeat Sept. 1.
The Cubs counter with fellow right-hander Rodrigo Lopez(notes) (1-2, 3.91), who allowed two hits in seven scoreless innings of Sunday’s 3-1 victory over the White Sox - just his second start since spending most of June in the bullpen.
“I definitely feel better being in the rotation,” he told the Cubs’ official website. “It’s where I’ve been most of my career, so it makes me feel more comfortable.”
Lopez allowed one run in six innings and earned the victory during Arizona’s 9-1 win over Pittsburgh on April 9, 2010 - his only career meeting with the Pirates.