Since the division was created in 1994, Pittsburgh has never finished with a winning record against NL Central teams, although the club came close in 1997, going 24-24. Entering Monday's game against the Cubs at PNC Park, though, the Pirates are 21-13 against division opponents, as they battle with the Reds for first place.
With center fielder Andrew McCutchen playing like a legitimate MVP candidate, and the Pittsburgh pitching staff ranking among the best in the Majors, the Pirates don't appear ready to have a similar drop-off as they had last season. And with the Bucs entering Monday's game on a five-game winning streak, Cubs manager Dale Sveum said he has taken notice.
"Their pitching has been great and the last three, four weeks, they've been scoring a lot of runs and swinging the bats," he said. "Casey McGehee is swinging like he did a couple years ago and, obviously, McCutchen is having an MVP-type season. They're working on all cylinders, there's no doubt about it. The bottom line is their pitching staff has been really, really good."
On Monday, Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle will trot Erik Bedard to the mound. After Bedard gave up four or more runs in each of his last three starts before the All-Star break, Hurdle gave the left-hander some extended time off. It seemed to have worked, as Bedard surrendered just one run in 6 2/3 innings on the way to a 6-2 win over the Rockies on Tuesday.
"Absolutely [the down-time helped]," Hurdle said. "We identified some things, and he worked on them in three side sessions. He was able to recreate some angles and sequences that we had seen the first five weeks of the season. A timeout can be very helpful. It's a long season, and whether it's arm weariness or mental fatigue, it's a great opportunity for guys to find the reboot button."
The Cubs had also been on a hot streak after the break, winning five of six heading into the weekend. However, after getting swept by the Cardinals, they'll look to bounce back with Jeff Samardzija taking the hill.
Samardzija has been shaky as of late, winning just one of his last eight starts. He gave up one run while striking out nine batters in his most recent outing on Wednesday, but was pulled after throwing 97 pitches through five innings.
With trade rumors surrounding pitchers Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza, Sveum said Samardzija has the potential to take over as a No. 1 pitcher. Samardzija said every time he steps on the mound, it's a chance to prove he's capable.
"Not knowing what's going to happen, you have to stay on your toes and understand tomorrow might be a little different," Samardzija said. "I understand what my role is on this team and what it's going to be in the future. I'm trying to do everything I can today, so down the road, when you are relied upon, you're ready to take the reins and do what you've got to do. "
Cubs: Garza feels better, ready to make next start
• Trying to ignore trade rumors, Garza was also hampered by cramping in his elbow that forced him from Saturday's game against the Cardinals after just three innings.
On Sunday, Garza said that elbow feels better, and he anticipates being able to make his next start, whenever that may be, considering Chicago has an off-day to work with on Thursday.
"I think it's a cramp that's stiff today," Garza said. "I had better movement today than yesterday, so that's a positive."
Often plagued by his own offense's struggles this season, Garza is 5-7 on the year with a 3.91 ERA.
Pirates: Hurdle finds rest for Barmes, Barajas
• With the Pirates in the midst of the NL Central pennant race, manager Clint Hurdle is focused on keeping some of his best players, including Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas, fresh.
Hurdle continued that practice on Sunday, playing Jordy Mercer in Barmes' spot at shortstop and Michael McKenry behind the plate in place of Barajas.
I want Barmes and Barajas to get ample rest, so they can stay strong," Hurdle said. "Those are two guys I've identified as key contributors defensively that we need to keep in play."
Barmes, 33, and Barajas, 36, are both veterans who have made their contributions on defense as opposed to the plate, where they are batting .207 and .215, respectively. That ability on defense is enough for Hurdle to want to make sure they can play at full speed down the stretch.
And in the case of Barmes, it helps for Hurdle to have the 25-year-old Mercer, who went 1-for-3 on Sunday and was a combined 2-for-2 the two previous days as a substitute.
"He's gone from just working on things to having us try to find more playing time for him," Hurdle said
• The Pirates are 3-0 against the Cubs this season, as the two teams met in late May. One week after the upcoming series in Pittsburgh, the Pirates will travel to Chicago for three more games at Wrigley Field. They'll also play seven games against each other in September.