Although they've fallen back into a tie for the top NL wild-card spot, the Pittsburgh Pirates have an opportunity to bounce back as they begin a three-game series against the lowly Chicago Cubs.
Closing in on their first playoff appearance in 21 years and trying to make it take place at home, the visiting Pirates will try to beat the Cubs for the 11th time in 17 meetings Monday night.
Pittsburgh (89-67) failed to take control of the race for home-field advantage in a potential wild-card playoff matchup with Cincinnati on Sunday, losing 11-3 at home to the Reds. That left the teams dead even.
"We dug ourselves a little bit of a hole early and they never let up, kept their foot on the gas pedal,'' said second baseman Neil Walker, who hit his 13th home run. "We have to continue to play good baseball and things will go our way.''
The Pirates have lost five of seven, but they're still close to their first playoff spot since 1992. Pittsburgh also has an outside chance to win the NL Central, as it's close behind St. Louis.
The Pirates will try to take advantage of the timely matchup with the last-place Cubs (65-91) before wrapping up the season with three games in Cincinnati.
They'll give the ball to Charlie Morton (7-4, 3.35 ERA), who was outstanding in his last start before the bullpen blew a one-run lead in the ninth inning in a 3-2 loss to San Diego on Wednesday.
The right-hander matched a career high with nine strikeouts while allowing one run and two hits over eight innings. He's gone 4-1 with a 2.73 ERA in his last nine starts.
He'll try to continue the strong work of Pittsburgh starters against Chicago this season, as they've posted a 2.21 ERA to help the Pirates take 10 of 16 meetings. Morton, however, is 1-3 with a 7.52 ERA in four career starts at Wrigley Field.
Chicago's Brian Bogusevic hit the only home run Morton has allowed in his last 67 innings in a 5-4 win at Pittsburgh on Sept. 13. Bogusevic is 5 for 8 all-time in their matchups.
Cubs manager Dale Sveum thinks series like this one can help his club for the future.
"That's the vision you have, wanting to be in that position and wanting to get into September and meaningful games and go through the playoff atmosphere in September," he told the team's official website. "The playoffs are the playoffs, but a lot of these teams, especially the Pirates and the Cardinals, they've been playing playoff games, basically, fighting for the division and fighting for home-field advantage, all those things."
Jeff Samardzija (8-12, 4.42), among the top 10 in the major leagues with 203 strikeouts, showed signs of improvement in his last start Tuesday. He gave up three runs over seven innings while striking out eight in a 4-3 loss at Milwaukee, not getting a decision.
The right-hander had posted an 8.35 ERA in his previous three starts.
Samardzija hasn't had much success at home, going 2-4 with a 5.76 ERA in his last 11 starts there. He's given up nine runs and 17 hits over 12 innings while dropping both home starts against the Pirates this season.
Andrew McCutchen is 5 for 12 with three doubles against Samardzija. The NL MVP candidate has batted .395 in his last 12 games versus Chicago, but he's hitless in his last 13 at-bats overall.
The Cubs, who have split six meetings with Pittsburgh at Wrigley, have dropped nine of 12 overall.