By Nate Barnes
PITTSBURGH — The Chicago Cubs travel to PNC Park on Thursday to begin a four-game set with the Pittsburgh Pirates. While the Pirates (84-61) are just one game back of the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League Central division lead, the Cubs (62-83) are in the closing stretch of a 2013 campaign that will see them finish below .500.
But despite the disparity in record between the Cubs and recent opponents like the Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and now the Pirates, the Cubs have dealt challenges to three of the NL’s toughest teams in recent weeks. Overall, the Cubs are 22-40 against the NL Central in 2013 but enter Pittsburgh after a series win in Cincinnati and taking two-of-three in St. Louis earlier in August.
For first baseman Anthony Rizzo, the focus against the teams near the top of the league’s pile is a simple one.
“We’re out of it, so you have to keep focusing on the positives, get the team together and play good baseball,” Rizzo said.
Beyond that, manager Dale Sveum attributes the Cubs’ success against the Reds and Cardinals lately as a byproduct of success on the mound.
“I think as much as anything we’ve pitched well against those teams. We seemed to have pitched well against the Cardinals, their best lineup,” Sveum said. “Last series we probably won two out of three because we kept Bruce and Phillips from doing anything in the games.”
The crucial aspect of the team's pitching isn’t particularly dominant, shutout performances but outings by starters that keep the Cubs in games and afford Sveum and his team a chance to win the game.
“We’ve been able to stay in baseball games because we haven’t been giving up the big totals of seven, eight or nine runs against those teams that can possibly happen,” Sveum said. “That’s basically it, our starters have pitched good enough in the games to keep us in the games and play .500 against the Cardinals and did a little better against the Reds.”
Now, the Cubs enter Pittsburgh looking to take a few games from a likely playoff team. But don’t say they’re trying to spoil the Bucs’ most successful season in 20 years.
“They’re trying to accomplish dreams that we’re trying to accomplish, so to say that we want to spoil their dreams, it’s not,” Rizzo said. “We just want to go out and play good baseball and win a game.”
Next to Rizzo in the infield, second baseman Darwin Barney wants his side just to put pressure on the Pirates and maybe catch Pittsburgh napping after a three-game sweep of the Texas Rangers.
“Sometimes you run into teams that just came off a big series and maybe think they can take a little break, you never know,” Barney said. “We know what they’re fighting for, how much pride they have and what they’re doing here. Our job is to go out and make life tough on them.”
In his career, Barney has been one of the best in the Cubs’ clubhouse when it comes to making life tough on the Pirates, as he carries a .307 lifetime average into play Thursday night against Pittsburgh.
“A lot of us here are fighting for jobs and playing for the same reasons, so it’s definitely fun to play meaningful games in September,” Barney said. “Hopefully we can walk out of here with a few wins.”