The Pittsburgh Pirates' amazing play at home started two months ago when they last faced the Chicago Cubs.
The Pirates will try for their first six-game win streak in four seasons Monday night when they open a three-game set against the Cubs, who have not scored in their last 25 innings.
Pittsburgh (54-40) owns baseball's best home mark at 32-14, but was only 11-10 when Chicago (38-56) visited back in May for the lone previous 2012 series between these teams. The Pirates averaged 2.5 runs while hitting .210 over their first 21 home games.
It's been a different story since Pittsburgh's May 25-27 three-game sweep of Chicago kick-started this 21-4 stretch at PNC Park in which the Pirates are batting .271 and averaging 4.8 runs.
Pittsburgh leads the NL wild-card race and trails Central leader Cincinnati by one-half game. The Pirates are seeking their first six-game win streak since a seven-game run May 6-12, 2008.
Chicago had won 14 of 19 before being outscored 23-1 while being swept over the weekend in St. Louis. The Cubs have not scored since Darwin Barney's sacrifice fly in the second inning of Friday's 4-1 defeat.
It might not be easy to get untracked against Erik Bedard (5-10, 4.55 ERA). Chicago is 10-18 against left-handed starters, and failed to score while managing two hits and four walks over six innings against him May 27 in a 10-4 loss.
Bedard gave up two runs over 6 2-3 innings Tuesday to earn a 6-2 victory at Colorado. He had been 0-4 with a 7.99 ERA over his previous five outings.
He owns a 2.95 ERA at home compared to a 5.90 mark on the road.
Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija (6-8, 4.57) has a 1.29 ERA in 11 career relief appearances against the Pirates heading into his first career start against them.
The right-hander has pitched well in three July outings, going 1-1 with a 2.37 ERA. He yielded one run over five innings Wednesday in a 5-1 home victory over the Marlins.
Pittsburgh has never had a winning record within NL Central play. The Pirates are 21-13 against their division rivals as they open a stretch of 13 straight against them.
Apparently, this whole idea of the Cubs trading pitchers Ryan Dempster and/or Matt Garza isn't going to be as easy as some people might have thought.
Both pitchers started this weekend in St. Louis, with mixed results. The more serious situation is with Garza, who left Saturday night's start after three innings with right-triceps cramping. X-rays proved negative, and Garza said he wasn't sure how the ailment came about.
Dempster, who had been rumored as a favorite of the Dodgers before he was rumored not to be so, had his 33-inning scoreless streak snapped in Friday's series opener.
It didn't go much better for lefty Travis Wood in Sunday's 7-0 loss to the Cardinals in St. Louis. Wood fell to 4-5 after allowing four in the first inning.
Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have made no secret of their desire to bring more pitching inventory into a minor league system sorely lacking it.
But both executives have left themselves escape hatches in case they're unable to deal one or both of their top two pitchers. Dempster has been a Chicago fan favorite for years. He can become a free agent at the end of the season, and neither he nor the Cubs have ruled out Dempster returning.
Garza's situation is a little more interesting. The 28-year-old Garza cannot become a free agent until after the 2013 season, and the Cubs seem amenable to signing him to a long-term extension.
"We need more guys like him in the organization, not fewer," Hoyer said. "We've been very consistent with that all along. He can certainly help a team win."
RHP Matt Garza left Saturday night's start after three innings because of right-triceps cramping. "I don't know how it happened," Garza said. X-rays proved negative, and Garza said he was feeling better Sunday. He is hoping to avoid a stint on the disabled list, but an off-day in the schedule coming up Thursday may enable the Cubs to push him back in the rotation. "I don't think it's a bone contusion or a bruise or anything," Garza said. "I think it's just a cramp that's stiff, just a stiff muscle. I have better movement today than I did yesterday, so that's positive. I can move it today, so that's a huge plus."
LHP Travis Wood endured his second straight poor start Sunday after four straight wins. Wood gave up four runs in the first inning. He lasted six, giving up nine hits and seven runs, six earned. "I'm not sure what happened," Wood said. "Their series, I guess. They put the ball in play, got the hits when they needed them. It just wasn't our series at all." The Cardinals swept the Cubs in the three-game series.
LHP Jeff Beliveau was recalled Sunday from Class AAA (Des Moines) Iowa, and RHP Rafael Dolis was optioned to Iowa. Beliveau, 25, was the Cubs' minor league pitcher of the year in 2011. At Iowa, he was 4-5 with a 4.05 ERA in 34 relief appearances. He made his major league debut Sunday, working 1.2 shutout innings, giving up three hits. Dolis was 2-4 with a 6.44 ERA in two stints in the Cubs' bullpen. He has battled command issues all year.
LHP James Russell, one of the most dependable pitchers out of the bullpen, saw his ERA rise from 2.45 to 3.63 as he gave up six runs in two-thirds of an inning Saturday, as the Cardinals scored 12 runs in the seventh inning. "Russell has gone four months basically without a hiccup like that," Sveum said. "Those things can happen. Unfortunately it was in a 0-0 game and it started out on an infield dribbler. We got an out on a bunt and after that we all witnessed some good hitting too."
RHP Justin Germano made his Cubs debut Saturday, two days after being acquired from the Red Sox for cash considerations. Germano have up a run and four hits over three innings of long relief of Garza. The Cubs acquired Germano to work out of the bullpen, but he was a starter at Class AAA Pawtucket most of this season, and if the Cubs make a trade, Germano could step into the rotation, either temporarily or for the rest of the season.
By The Numbers:
10—That was the number worn by the late Hall of Famer Ron Santo, who was inducted into Cooperstown Sunday. Cubs players wore a No. 10 patch on their uniforms in honor of Santo.
Quote To Note:
"It just feels right, a perfect ending to a remarkable journey. Ron left an awful hole for many of us today. This is not a sad day. This is a great day. I'm certain that Ronnie is celebrating right now."
—Vicki Santo, widow of Ron Santo, speaking in Cooperstown Sunday on her late husband's induction into the Hall of Fame.