The Pittsburgh Pirates are trying to lock down the franchise's first playoff berth in two decades, while the Chicago Cubs are attempting to avoid their first 100-loss season in almost 50 years.
That was difficult to tell in the opener.The Pirates try to bounce back from perhaps their most embarrassing loss of the year Saturday night when they face Chicago's Jeff Samardzija, who hopes to go into the offseason on a high note as he makes his final start.Playing a Cubs team that owns baseball's second-worst record and arrived in Pittsburgh after a one-sided, four-game sweep at the hands of Washington, the Pirates (72-65) looked more like the team playing out the string Friday. Pittsburgh committed seven errors for the first time since 1985, while managing just four hits in a 12-2 loss."It was just one of those games, words can't even really describe it," said shortstop Josh Harrison, who had one error. "I really don't know what to say but put it behind us and come back (Saturday)."Pittsburgh, which appeared to be in great shape to secure its first playoff berth since 1992 a month ago, has lost five of seven and 18 of 27.The Cubs (52-86), who need to win 11 of their final 24 games to avoid their first 100-loss season since the 1966 team matched a franchise record with 103 defeats, won Friday for just the second time in 19 games away from Wrigley Field. Starlin Castro had three hits, including the 500th of his career, and drove in a season-high four runs, while Alfonso Soriano added three hits and three RBIs.The two have been leading Chicago's offense lately, with Castro batting .476 with six RBIs in his last five games, and Soriano driving in 12 runs in his last eight.Pittsburgh's offensive catalyst, Andrew McCutchen, hasn't been quite as productive lately. He's hitting .262 with seven RBIs in his last 15 games, but is 3 for 7 lifetime against Samardzija (8-13, 3.91 ERA).Prior to Friday's game, the Cubs announced they would be shutting down Samardzija, who leads the team with 27 starts and 165 2/3 innings in his first full season as a starter."It's unfortunate," he said. "I really would have liked to have finished the season. I've given everything I've had."Although he has a losing record, the right-hander hasn't pitched terribly -- his ERA is just a tick worse than opposing starter, James McDonald (12-7, 3.90). Samardzija's run support average of 3.15, however, is the worst in the majors, and he's been backed by two runs or fewer in 10 of his last 11 starts. He has a 2.78 ERA over that stretch, but is 2-6.He certainly pitched well enough to win Monday in Washington, yielding one run while striking out eight in seven innings in a 2-1 loss.His best outing came against the Pirates on July 23, when he gave up a hit and a walk over eight innings in a 2-0 win.McDonald's only start in the season series came the next day, and he gave up five runs -- including homers to Soriano and Castro -- over six innings in a 5-1 loss.McDonald has alternated good and bad performances in his last five starts, tossing 13 shutout innings in winning two, while going 0-2 with a 13.50 ERA in the other three. The righty is coming off one of those brutal outings, allowing a season-worst eight runs and a career-high four homers in 2 2/3 innings of Sunday's 12-8 loss to Milwaukee.