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Pittsburgh/ChiCubs over 4.5 even:
The Pittsburgh Pirates know what it feels like to enter a similar position a year ago. They hope to do worlds better than their epic 2011 collapse, and facing Travis Wood just might get them off to the start they need to stay in contention for the NL Central title. The Pirates (59-44) are tied with Atlanta for the league's top wild-card spot and are three games back of NL Central-leading Cincinnati. They were 4 1/2 games out of first a year ago, but had the majors' third-worst August at 8-22 to fall 18 1/2 back by month's end.
They concluded this July with Tuesday's 5-0 win over the Cubs, as A.J. Burnett came within four outs of recording his second no-hitter. Cubs rookie Adrian Cardenas had a pinch-hit single to right field on a 3-2 pitch - Burnett's only blemish in his first complete game since 2006. Pittsburgh got out to an early lead with Neil Walker belting a first-inning grand slam. The early outburst wasn't a big surprise considering Casey Coleman was called upon to make his first start of the season after scheduled starter Ryan Dempster was traded minutes before the non-waiver deadline. Dempster was one of four Cubs shipped out - along with Paul Maholm, Reed Johnson and Geovany Soto - as the rebuilding team is expected to go with several youngsters as it plays out the stretch.
The Pirates, who acquired Wandy Rodriguez last week, were also busy at the deadline, obtaining former All-Star first baseman Gaby Sanchez from Miami and reliever Chad Qualls from the New York Yankees. Unlike Chicago (43-59), however, Pittsburgh is in the thick of the playoff hunt, and it appears to have a good shot of adding to its win total against Wood (4-6, 4.98 ERA). Wood posted a 1.01 ERA in winning his final four starts before the All-Star break, but has a 12.64 ERA in losing his three starts since. In Friday's 9-6 loss to St. Louis, he became the first starter in baseball history to allow a homer in each of the first five innings. This will be Wood's first outing against the Pirates after recording a 15.00 ERA in losing both of his starts against them last year with Cincinnati.
Pittsburgh counters with Jeff Karstens (3-2, 3.88), who has alternated stellar and shaky showings in four July starts. He allowed no runs over 15 innings in two of them, but eight runs in 12 innings in the other two. The right-hander is coming off one of his subpar outings, yielding four runs and six hits in five innings in Pittsburgh's 6-5 win over Houston on Friday. He surrendered two home runs after allowing one in his first eight starts this season. As a spot starter as well as a middle reliever on occasion out of the bullpen, Karstens has proved his versatility and could be a key component if the Pirates plan to make the postseason.
We get a bargain of a price this afternoon for a change and given Wrigley is relatively warm on this first day of August, the breeze should be blowing out to the outfield corners. Andrew McCutchen (.371 22 66) continues to lead the league in hitting and has been crushing opponents all season with a variety of key game winning knocks. Garrett Jones (.266 16 49) has also heated up as of late as has Walker (.281 11 55), who make up the bulk of the offense that despite hitting just .245 this season has also belted 116 HR collectively. Pedro Alvarez (.233 21 58) got off to a slow start but has more than made up for it with his display of power and production. Michael McKenny (.268 9 24) has made the most of his playing time over the last month behind the plate over Rod Barajas. Wood could be in for a long day if the Pirates can take the rubber game of this series. Meanwhile, Karstens faces a Cubs lineup who will look to get their offense back on track considering their offensive strugglesAlfonso support their 5th place showing in the Central. Alfonso Soriano (.270 19 61) earlier in the week looked to be trade bait in order to cut salary but has since survived the deadline. Brian Lahair (.264 14 31) got off to a great start but has seen his average plummet 30 points over the last few months with just 2 HR over that span. Starlin Castro (.283 10 51) continues to be one of the all around bright spots at shortstop while Anthony Rizzo (.321 8 20) has a bright future ahead. Best of luck however you play!
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