The Boston Red Sox fancy themselves contenders, but for now, they're doing a spot-on impersonation of the major league-worst Chicago Cubs.
Boston tries to overcome its recent hitting struggles and avoid a ninth loss in 12 games Saturday night at Wrigley Field when it faces Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija in the middle game of this series between last-place teams.
The Red Sox (31-33) appeared to be turning the corner after winning 16 of 22 from May 11-June 2 to move a season-best three games above .500, but they've gone 3-8 since. They've scored two runs or fewer in six of their last 11 games after doing so six times in their previous 40.
"You always get frustrated when you have good at-bats and don't get anything to show for it," manager Bobby Valentine said. "(Jarrod Saltalamacchia's) had a bunch of them, Dustin (Pedroia)'s had a bunch of them, (Kevin Youkilis) had a bunch of them."
Boston dropped Friday's series opener 3-0, mustering five hits - all singles - and seeing its attempt at a ninth-inning rally fall short when Pedroia grounded into a fielder's choice against Cubs closer Carlos Marmol with the bases loaded.
"Everyone's trying," Pedroia said. "We're not playing good. Today, we didn't play good."
The Cubs (22-42) haven't played well very often this season, but they're in the midst of one of their better stretches, having won three of five overall and five of seven at Wrigley. Even Marmol eventually got the job done Friday, converting his first save opportunity since May 2 after losing the closer's role for several weeks.
"I feel great up there now," he said. "I feel confidence. I think I'm going to keep my job. I'm going to continue to work hard."
Samardzija (5-4, 3.96 ERA) also said he had a lot to work on after his start last Saturday, when he gave up a season-high eight runs in 3 2-3 innings of an 11-3 loss to Minnesota, snapping a string of eight outings in which he'd allowed three runs or fewer. The right-hander will now look to continue his success at home, where he's 3-1 with a 1.96 ERA in five starts, striking out at least seven in each of them.
He'll be opposed by Jon Lester (3-4, 4.57), who is trying to end a four-start winless drought. The left-hander allowed three runs over seven innings while striking out a season-high nine Sunday, leaving with the score tied in a game the Red Sox eventually lost 4-3 to Washington.
It snapped a streak of four straight starts in which he'd yielded four runs or more, matching a career worst.
"It seems like it's just Groundhog Day every day, every start for me. I can't seem to get a break," Lester told the Red Sox's official website.
"Nobody has been in this situation here. Nobody has lost before like this. It's all new," he added. "I can speak for myself: I hate going out there and losing, regardless of if I'm pitching or not. I know guys down there are frustrated and rightly so."
Lester defeated the Cubs at Fenway Park in his only career start against them May 20, 2011, but wasn't particularly effective, surrendering five runs, 12 hits and two walks in six innings.