Cubs-Pirates Preview

After briefly getting within two of the NL Central lead and opening a five-game gap for the top wild-card spot, Pittsburgh finds itself back closer to the Chicago Cubs than division-leading St. Louis.

The race for home-field advantage in the wild card could get more interesting if the Cubs close their 11-game trip Thursday with a third win in four games against the Pirates.

It's been a busy two days for the NL's only true wild-card contenders, who split a doubleheader Tuesday before the Cubs won 3-2 in 12 innings one night later. The Pirates (87-58), four back of the Cardinals, still hold a three-game edge over Chicago (84-61).

Pittsburgh is batting .192 in the series, and curiously neither team has homered through three games. The last time two teams completed a four-game set without a home run was in 2011. The Cubs haven't been in such a series since 1979 and the Pirates since '84.

The Cubs, an NL-best 32-14 dating to July 29, have won nine of 15 in the season series, and another would ensure them of their first winning record against Pittsburgh since 2009. That was also the last time they had a winning record overall, and Wednesday's victory surpassed that 83-win season for their best since winning the Central in 2008.

Neither club has an ace going in the finale with Pittsburgh's Charlie Morton opposing Kyle Hendricks.

Morton (9-7, 4.02 ERA) has been fairly consistent in his last three starts, pitching six innings in each and posting a 3.00 ERA. Friday's 6-3 home win over Milwaukee was his first victory of the bunch and snapped a three-start losing streak. He gave up two runs and matched a season low with three hits allowed.

Even if the wins haven't been flooding in, the right-hander, whose stuff has never been untouchable, has a .218 opponent batting average in his last six starts.

"As the game went on, the command got sharper, and he was able to work in to left-handers and sink it down to right-handers," Clint Hurdle told MLB's official website after Morton's previous start.

Morton has avoided the Cubs since going 1-1 with a 5.68 ERA in his last three starts in the series last year. Starlin Castro (12 for 27 with three home runs) figures to be in the lineup, and Chris Coghlan (4 for 10 with a homer and triple) has also had success.

Hendricks (7-6, 4.08) hasn't had the best control in the second half, walking 3.60 per nine innings in 11 starts after issuing 1.55 over 17 before the All-Star break. That's resulted in a 3-2 record, 4.95 ERA and .329 opponent on-base percentage after he went 4-4 with 3.55 and .293 marks in the first half.

The right-hander has countered that in his last two outings by limiting Arizona and Philadelphia to a .175 average, resulting in two Chicago wins, a 1-0 record and 3.09 ERA.

For the 25-year-old, though, team wins are all that really matters at this point.

"The consensus here is everybody's thinking about October," Hendricks told MLB's official website. "We're that close. We can smell it. With that lead, you never can take anything for granted. We're in a good spot."

The Pirates have tagged him with a 0-1 record and 5.63 ERA in three starts this season. Pedro Alvarez is 3 for 8 with a home run.

Chicago's Miguel Montero is batting .366 in his last 11 to boost his average (.248) to its highest since June 26.

Pittsburgh follows this contest with a 10-game trip that closes with three at Wrigley Field as part 10-game homestand for the Cubs which begins Friday against St. Louis.

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