The Pirates get a quick respite from their battle with the Reds on Monday as they begin the regular season's final week with a three-game series against the last-place Cubs at Wrigley Field in their quest for a division crown.
Tied in the standings with the Reds, the Bucs have a comfortable lead (5 1/2 games over Washington) in the National League Wild Card race and are two games back of the first-place Cardinals in the NL Central. With their magic number at two to clinch a playoff berth, the Pirates play three against the Cubs before again seeing the Reds -- against whom they dropped two of three this weekend -- for three more to close the regular season.
Their focus for the beginning of this week is on the Cubs, who hope someday to do what the Pirates have done this year in breaking their losing ways. The Cubs are still in the early stages of that process, but manager Dale Sveum said playing games against teams like the Pirates when there's so much on the line is a good thing.
"That's the vision you have, wanting to be in that position and wanting to get into September and meaningful games and go through the playoff atmosphere in September," Sveum said. "The playoffs are the playoffs, but a lot of these teams, especially the Pirates and the Cardinals, they've been playing playoff games, basically, fighting for the division and fighting for home-field advantage, all those things. Every game is everything right now to those guys."
Right-hander Charlie Morton will take the mound Monday in his first start since tossing eight innings of one-run ball against the Padres. San Diego manager Bud Black called Morton's sinker in that start "one of the best hard sinkers I've seen all year."
The Cubs counter with righty Jeff Samardzija, who has a 2.17 career ERA against Pittsburgh. He's 1-3 with a 3.33 ERA in four starts against the Pirates this year.
Pirates: Blasting off
Russell Martin is the first Pirates catcher to hit 15 home runs in a season since Ryan Doumit in 2008. Martin's 15 blasts are two shy of the franchise mark for most homers by a catcher, set by Jim Pagliaroni in 1965.
Martin was removed from Sunday's game in the fifth with "discomfort in the left knee."
"I just felt it was a good time to get him out of there right then," manager Clint Hurdle said. "His preference would have been to stay in, but we used our eyes."
• Center fielder Andrew McCutchen is hitting .333 in 20 games this month.
Cubs: Extra! Extra!
First baseman Anthony Rizzo has 63 extra-base hits this season, the most for a Cubs left-handed hitter since Corey Patterson's 63 in 2004.
• Junior Lake's 67 base knocks since the All-Star break are the most among Major League rookies.
• The Cubs lead the NL in extra-base hits and rank second in home runs.
• Chicago's Starlin Castro and Nate Schierholtz are 5-for-12 lifetime against Morton, while Darwin Barney is 1-for-9 against the righty.
• The Pirates have gone 40-30 against the Central Division.
• The Cubs are 20-32 in one-run games.