If Jeff Samardzija is going to be a front-line starter for the Cubs during a playoff run, he's going to have to make adjustments on the fly.
The 28-year-old right-hander did just that Friday, but it was too little, too late.
Samardzija battled through six innings, but allowed four runs in the first three frames in the midst of a 6-2 loss to the Pirates in front of 38,615 at Wrigley Field for a rare 3:05 p.m. start.
"When you're in the middle of that game, you understand you're going to need to find ways to get outs," Samardzija said. "I finished strong. It's just early in the game, I need to be down in the zone and get quick, early outs. They had a couple early hits in each inning that had a runner on that put me on my heels.
"That's not how I pitch. I pitch aggressively and attack the zone and really take it to them.
"I learned my lesson. I thought I made some adjustments, but it was just a little too late. We'll learn next time we come out to face these guys."
[More: Dioner Navarro on facing Pittsburgh]
Samardzija struggled with his fastball command and left too many balls up in the zone early in the game. He allowed a season-high five walks and five runs to go along with nine hits as the Pirates (53-32) improved on the best record in baseball.
Entering play Friday, the three top teams in the National League resided in the Central division. The Pirates, Cardinals and Reds all sat at least 13 games over .500 with roughly half the season left to be played.
"You remember the days when this division wasn't too good," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "That's part of baseball and that's where you need to get as your organization and your 25-man roster. Get guys and play like -- and pitch like -- those guys are."
The Pirates are in the middle of the pack in the NL in runs scored, but have surrendered the least amount of runs in all of baseball. They've built a contending team on timely hitting, an elite bullpen and quality starting pitching -- baseball's traditional championship model.
Pittsburgh didn't need to go to its bullpen Friday, as Francisco Liriano improved to 3-0 against the Cubs in three starts this season. The southpaw stymied the Cubs with a complete game four-hitter, allowing only a two-run homer to Scott Hairston in the second inning.
In 23 innings against the Cubs this year, Liriano has allowed just two runs on eight hits, six of which were singles.
"It's so difficult to face him because he always throws pitches at the same speed, but with different actions," Cubs catcher Dioner Navarro said. "He did a great job. We tip our cap to them. We hit the ball hard, we just didn't have any good luck."
Liriano came through at the plate as well, driving home the first Pirates run with a two-strike single to left field. Samardzija also walked him on four pitches later in the game.
"If you want to beat these teams at the top of your division, pitchers can't get hits, pitchers can't get walked. Bottom line," Samardzija said.
"You need to make adjustments. What worked last time facing them might not necessarily work this time...You can't give these guys windows of opportunity. They take advantage of them and they don't give you any cheap outs, they don't make mistakes on the basepaths. You have to be on top of your game to match their level."
After Friday's game, Samardzija and Navarro insisted the Cubs feel good heading into matchups against the division's top three teams, even if the results haven't been so great.
"Oh no [I don't see that much difference between the Cubs and top teams in the league]," Navarro said. "I think we have what it takes but unfortunately, it hasn't worked out the way we've wanted it to.
"[The Pirates] are a really good team. I'm pretty sure they've got a lot of respect for us, too. We're not a pushover in this league. They know we can do it. It's a long, long season. We just have to come back tomorrow, ready to go."
With Blackhawks players Bryan Bickell and Brandon Bolling on hand Friday afternoon to throw out the ceremonial first pitch and sing the seventh-inning stretch, Sveum and the Cubs were reminded once again of just how sweet a championship would mean in this city and this market.
[More: Bickell chats with Kasper and Deshaies]
"What the Blackhawks went through, I think we all got caught up in it," Sveum said. "A lot of times, you sit back and you're like a 10-year-old kid. The 'what ifs' and the 'when we do this' and then when the guys come out and you get to meet them and talk about the Cup, you do reflect on it.
"There's only one feeling in this world when you're playing sports and it's with that last pitch or when the buzzer goes off and you're the World Champion. It doesn't happen to too many people two, three, four times. It's special.
"[When seeing Chicago's response to the Hawks], you do dream. You'd be lying if you said you didn't. That's the kind of stuff we dream of and why we do all this to get the organization where we want it to be. Everybody knows if we win one what this place will be like."