With a win Thursday, the Pittsburgh Pirates can pick up their third straight victory and win their four-game series with the visiting Chicago Cubs.
That would be no small feat for Pittsburgh (17-39), which had lost five straight and 13 of 15 before picking up a second straight win Wednesday, 2-1.The Pirates are playing for pride and to make an impression on management in the final days of this shortened season, while the Cubs (32-24) sit in first place in the National League Central and are headed for the playoffs.
One noticeable strength for Pittsburgh lately is the starting pitching. Over the past nine games, involving six starters, there have been five quality starts, a 1.80 ERA over 49 1/3 innings, 57 strikeouts with just 15 walks, and a .163 opponent average, according to ATT Sportsnet.
While that has only translated to two wins for the starters in those nine games, manager Derek Shelton has liked what he has seen.
"I think we're attacking the (strike) zone," he said. "I just think they've done a nice job of getting in attack mode."
If this were a normal season, it could be said that the starters are hitting their stride. That thought made Shelton smile, considering the Pirates have just four games left.
"We're finding our groove right now, and they're pitching well," he said.
Chicago has been a formidable opponent, winning the season series six years in a row, including a 6-3 mark this year.
Chicago remains without third baseman Kris Bryant, who left Monday's game with oblique tightness. Manager David Ross is hopeful Bryant can return before the playoffs, but it's unclear whether he might be available for the series finale Thursday.
"I'm optimistic," Ross said. "He felt better (Wednesday)."
Thursday, Chicago right-hander Alec Mills (5-4, 4.14 ERA) is scheduled to face Pittsburgh right-hander Chad Kuhl (1-3, 5.03 ERA).
Mills' season, and perhaps his career, will [be defined by what he did Sept. 13 - when he threw a no-hitter against Milwaukee.
If you ask him, though, he pitched better his next time out.
That wasn't a no-hitter, or even close. Saturday, he pitched six-plus innings against Minnesota, giving up four runs and six hits, with seven strikeouts and one walk in the Cubs' 8-1 loss.
"Baseball's funny," Mills said. "I actually think (Saturday's) stuff was probably better than I had (during the no-hitter), to be honest with you. You may think I'm crazy for saying that."
His manager didn't think Mills was crazy.
"I thought he was pitching really well," Ross said of Saturday's outing. "He was moving the ball around, mixing in all his stuff. I thought he was throwing the ball really good. Looked good from the side. Looked as good as (he did against) Milwaukee."
Which means there might not be a direct correlation between how well he pitches Thursday against Pittsburgh and what the outcome will be.
Mills will be making his second career start, fifth appearance, against the Pirates. He is 0-1 with a 5.79 ERA.
Kuhl has given up one earned run or fewer in six of his nine outings. That includes his last time on the mound. On Friday, he gave up five hits and four runs, but just one earned, with six strikeouts and two walks in five innings against St. Louis.
He is 1-6 with a 6.75 ERA in 11 career games, 10 of them starts, against the Cubs.
--Field Level Media