PITTSBURGH -- The Chicago Cubs will attempt to salvage a game against the charging Pittsburgh Pirates when they meet for the final time before the All-Star break at PNC Park on Sunday afternoon.
Chicago (52-35) dropped the series' first two games and has lost five straight entering Sunday. Pittsburgh (46-42) is heading in the opposite direction with nine wins in its past 10 games.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is attempting to keep his team's success in perspective.
"I think we keep things in the right place," Hurdle said. "We weren't walking away with our head down and feeling sorry for ourselves after getting beat through June. We're not going to do backflips now. We're going to keep playing. The goal is to meet the demands of the game and play baseball at a very high level. Just take care of things one day at a time."
If the Cubs hope to settle themselves before the break, it will have to be against left-handed pitcher Jonathan Niese, who is coming off his best start in about a month, a 4-2 win against the St. Louis Cardinals on Independence Day. He had lost his previous four starts and allowed at least four earned runs in each since pitching seven shutout innings in a 6-2 win against the New York Mets on June 7.
Despite the improved performance in his last outing, Niese still has work to do in one area. He would do well to go further into Sunday's game than he has since that June outing against New York, since he's failed to go more than six innings in each of his past five starts.
The Pirates have surged in recent weeks thanks in large part to their resurgent bullpen, which has been taxed by short outings from the starters. Hurdle realizes that and would like to alleviate some of that pressure with solid, lengthy starts.
The upcoming All-Star break should also help the bullpen, but Niese could provide it a bit of extra rest with a strong outing against Chicago.
Each team's pitching depth will be tested Sunday after heavily exercising their bullpens Saturday. Pirates right-hander Chad Kuhl went just 2 1/3 innings in his third major league start Saturday and Cubs veteran left-hander Jon Lester didn't manage to go much longer, lasting three complete innings.
Chicago will counter Niese with left-handed pitcher John Lackey, who has struggled lately, just as the rest of the Cubs have. He allowed six runs, five earned, in a 9-5 loss, his fourth straight, in his last start against the Cincinnati Reds on July 5.
Lackey, who has yet to face Pittsburgh this season, went 0-1 with a 2.25 ERA in three starts against the Pirates last season.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon is hoping Lackey can propel Chicago to a win before the break for the sake of confidence.
"It'd be nice," Maddon said. "Unfortunately, I've been part of this before. We lost seven in a row before the All-Star break (with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008) and went to the World Series. I've lived it. It's never any fun. I get it. It'd be wonderful to do that. Every game, every day is the most important game of the year."