Pitching has been vital to the Pittsburgh Pirates' recent surge, but improvement from the offense may be more important to beating Chicago Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija for the first time.
Francisco Liriano will try to keep the Pirates cruising on the mound as they attempt to finally solve Samardzija on Wednesday night.
Pittsburgh is 9-2 over its last 11 games thanks in large part to a 2.34 ERA while limiting opponents to a .223 average.
The offense is also showing signs of improvement, batting .255 over that span - 10 points higher than the team's season mark.
A big at-bat kept the Pirates (27-18) surging in the opener of this three-game series Tuesday. Travis Snider connected for a pinch-hit grand slam during a five-run sixth inning to power a 5-4 win.
Pittsburgh won for the fourth time in 11 meetings with the Cubs, batting .206 and averaging 3.7 runs over that stretch.
Part of those troubles have come against Samardzija (2-5, 3.49 ERA), who has dominated the Pirates - especially at PNC Park.
The right-hander is 4-0 with a 0.92 ERA in 14 games - three starts - against them. All of the wins - including the three starts - have come in his last four visits to Pittsburgh, compiling a 0.69 ERA.
Samardzija was superb there on opening day, striking out nine and allowing two hits in eight shutout innings of a 3-1 win April 1. However, he hadn't won again until last Wednesday, when he allowed two runs in eight innings of a 6-3 victory over Colorado.
He helped himself with a two-run homer in the second.
"He's a velocity guy who can get carried away with trying to blow people away," manager Dale Sveum told the team's official website. "He's learning the hard way and understanding, 'I still better locate my fastball.' He's going to give up the hanging split (sometimes) - that's just the way that goes with a power split, you're not going to throw every one of them to the earth, you are going to hang them sometime.
"That game against Pittsburgh on opening day, he pitched inside incredibly, and we have to get back to pitching to both sides of the plate and not letting guys get comfortable."
Location has been key for Liriano, who has gone 2-0 with a 1.64 ERA in his first two starts with the Pirates after opening the season on the disabled list while recovering from a broken right arm.
The left-hander's latest effort included seven strikeouts while yielding one run in 5 2-3 innings of a 7-1 victory over Milwaukee in his home debut Thursday.
"I just try to stay calm, not try to do too much, hit my spot and just focus on location," Liriano said. "Pitching is all about location. I'm locating my fastball a lot better and my slider is working for me so far."
Liriano suffered an 8-2 defeat with Minnesota in his only start against the Cubs on June 10, 2012. He gave up four runs and three walks while striking out six in 5 2-3 innings.
Andrew McCutchen had one of the hits off Samardzija on opening day, but he's 2 for 8 with five strikeouts against him dating to last year.
The star center fielder went 0 for 4 in the series opener after missing a game with knee soreness. He was 7 for 14 with five runs over his three previous contests.