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HOU@PIT: Burnett fans four over eight strong frames

What must Ryan Dempster do to earn a victory?

The right-hander, who carries a 2.28 ERA through seven starts, is winless (0-2), despite allowing two or fewer earned runs in five of his seven outings. His chances at notching that elusive first win on Friday would appear to be favorable, considering his opponent, the Pirates, are averaging just 2.86 runs per game after Wednesday's 3-1 loss to the Mets. Pittsburgh's offensive output is the lowest in baseball.

In his last start, Dempster yielded four runs in six innings of a loss to the White Sox. Following the game, he quipped, "I didn't pitch well enough to win the ballgame."

That has been a common sentiment from Cubs pitchers during the club's eight-game losing streak. Chicago is averaging 3.25 runs per game during the skid, and just 2.2 runs over the last five defeats.

"We still have to do something against starting pitching," manager Dale Sveum said. "That's the bottom line, is we have to score and score early."

The Pirates have faced similar struggles at the plate. Pittsburgh has scored more than five runs in a game just three times all season.

Luckily for the Pirates, Friday starter A.J. Burnett has done his best lately to neutralize opposing hitters. The right-hander has allowed just six runs in 22 innings over his last three outings. The Pirates have won all three contests.

Manager Clint Hurdle appreciates what the veteran has brought to the young club.

"He's modeling behavior for the other pitchers," Hurdle said, "and that's definitely another way he brings value to the team."

Cubs: Wood impresses in second start
• Travis Wood logged 5 2/3 innings in his second start on Tuesday. The southpaw allowed two runs on two hits, but took the loss in a 2-1 defeat to Houston.

Wood struggled in Spring Training and made seven starts at Triple-A Iowa.

"I tip my hat to him," Sveum said. "I know he's gone through some adversity through all this, and he's had two really impressive starts for us."

Pirates: Grilli returns to bullpen
• Jason Grilli came off the bereavement list on Wednesday and in a corresponding roster move, the club optioned Jeff Locke back to Triple-A Indianapolis.

Locke joined Pittsburgh's bullpen on Sunday, but never made an appearance.

"Jeff was here for a [long-relief] role that never presented itself," Hurdle said. "We were not going to use him situationally."

Worth noting
• Pirates pinch-hitters are hitting a National League-worst .132 (7-for-53).

• The Cubs have not held a lead since the fourth inning on May 16.

• Pittsburgh has scored a combined total of six runs in its past four defeats.

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