Pirates-Cubs Preview

The Associated Press

The Pittsburgh Pirates enter August in a similar position as a year ago.

They hope the next 31 days go significantly better than last August, and facing Chicago's Travis Wood in Wednesday's series finale at Wrigley Field should help them open the month positively.

The Pirates (59-44) are tied with Atlanta for the league's top wild-card spot and are three games back of NL Central-leading Cincinnati. They were 4 1/2 games out of first a year ago, but had the majors' third-worst August at 8-22 to fall 18 1/2 back by month's end.

They concluded this July with Tuesday's 5-0 win over the Cubs, as A.J. Burnett came within four outs of recording his second no-hitter. Cubs rookie Adrian Cardenas had a pinch-hit single to right field on a 3-2 pitch - Burnett's only blemish in his first complete game since 2006.

"Bottom line is it's a 'W' for us," he said.

Pittsburgh got out to an early lead with Neil Walker belting a first-inning grand slam.

The early outburst wasn't a big surprise considering Casey Coleman was called upon to make his first start of the season after scheduled starter Ryan Dempster was traded minutes before the non-waiver deadline. Dempster was one of four Cubs shipped out - along with Paul Maholm, Reed Johnson and Geovany Soto - as the rebuilding team is expected to go with several youngsters as it plays out the stretch.

The Pirates, who acquired Wandy Rodriguez last week, were also busy at the deadline, obtaining former All-Star first baseman Gaby Sanchez from Miami and reliever Chad Qualls from the New York Yankees. Unlike Chicago (43-59), however, Pittsburgh is in the thick of the playoff hunt, and it appears to have a good shot of adding to its win total against Wood (4-6, 4.98 ERA).

Wood posted a 1.01 ERA in winning his final four starts before the All-Star break, but has a 12.64 ERA in losing his three starts since. In Friday's 9-6 loss to St. Louis, he became the first starter in baseball history to allow a homer in each of the first five innings. Manager Dale Sveum mercifully didn't send him out for the sixth after he had already been tagged for eight runs.

"He does have to keep the ball down,'' Sveum said. "You're going to get away with that a little more against some other teams. If you make a mistake, (the Cardinals) don't miss them."

Neither do the Pirates, who have an NL-best 78 homers since June 1.

This will be Wood's first outing against the Pirates after recording a 15.00 ERA in losing both of his starts against them last year with Cincinnati.

Walker is 3 for 7 with a double lifetime against Wood, while Andrew McCutchen, who hit .446 in July, is 1 for 6 with a double in their matchups.

Pittsburgh counters with Jeff Karstens (3-2, 3.88), who has alternated stellar and shaky showings in four July starts. He allowed no runs over 15 innings in two of them, but eight runs in 12 innings in the other two.

The right-hander is coming off one of his subpar outings, yielding four runs and six hits in five innings in Pittsburgh's 6-5 win over Houston on Friday. He surrendered two home runs after allowing one in his first eight starts this season.

Karstens is 2-2 with a 3.21 ERA in his last five starts against the Cubs and will be facing them for the first time this season.

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