The Cubs hadn't swept a doubleheader in Pittsburgh since 1980, but with Houston's big lead over St. Louis posted on the scoreboard early in Game 2, everyone in their dugout knew what was at stake.
Yet the Cubs responded with a sluggish effort in a 10-6 loss at PNC Park after barely fending off the Pirates in a 10-9 victory in Game 1.
When the long day ended in a split, the Cubs found themselves 1½ games behind NL Central-leading Houston with eight games remaining and two games behind Philadelphia in the race for the wild-card playoff berth.
Despite going 14-5 since Sept. 1, the Cubs have gained only one game on the Astros.
While starting pitching has carried the Cubs during the month, the Pirates shelled Carlos Zambrano and Juan Cruz Friday. They gave up 15 combined runs on 16 hits and six walks in 82/3 innings.
In Game 1, Zambrano coughed up leads of three runs and five runs before the Cubs chalked up the victory on Alex Gonzalez's sacrifice fly in the sixth inning.
"It just seems like every game turns close no matter what the score is," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said between games. "We ended up winning, but I just wish they weren't so close sometimes."
Rookie left-fielder Jason Bay, acquired by Pittsburgh from San Diego last month in the Brian Giles deal, drove in eight runs with two homers and a double off Zambrano, who entered the game with a 7-2 record and 1.61 earned-run average since the All-Star break.
In his worst outing of the season, Zambrano gave up nine runs (six earned) on eight hits in 42/3 innings. In his previous seven starts, Zambrano had allowed nine runs in 54 innings.
After Gonzalez's two-run homer ignited a three-run second, Zambrano served up a grand slam to Bay to give Pittsburgh a 4-3 lead. The Cubs answered with six in the third, thanks to two former Pirates.
Aramis Ramirez hit a two-run homer, his 12th as a Cub, and Kenny Lofton delivered a bases-clearing triple.
"That's what you're supposed to do," Baker said. "Come back and get your old team."
Bay's two-run homer in the fourth closed the gap to 9-6 before Randall Simon's two-out error in the fifth led to the game-tying rally. Zambrano let one run in on a wild pitch before Bay smoked a two-run double on another fastball, tying the game 9-9.
Baker said the Cubs weren't taking the young Pirates, especially Bay, for granted.
"I was always taught that in September, if you don't know a kid, see if he can hit the breaking ball," he said. "He wouldn't be here if he couldn't hit a fastball. We have to get a little smarter against these young guys.
"[It was] bad location and bad pitch selection at the same time. [Catcher Damian Miller] was setting up a foot outside, and that ball came back over the heart of the plate."
Bay's eight RBIs were the most by a Pirate since Ralph Kiner drove in that many at Brooklyn on June 5, 1950. But Gonzalez's sacrifice fly handed the Cubs their third lead and the bullpen combined for 41/3 innings of one-hit ball, with Joe Borowski notching his 31st save.
Baker shuffled his starting lineup for Game 2, replacing every player but Ramirez and Sammy Sosa, who was 0-for-5 in the opener and 5-for-38 (.132) since Sept. 10.
"Sammy can break out any minute," Baker explained. "Hopefully any minute will come in the second game."
Facing right-hander Salomon Torres, who had beaned him on April 20 at PNC Park, Sosa broke out with an RBI double in the first to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead, then added a solo homer in the fifth to snap a 2-2 tie.
But Cruz, like Zambrano, failed to hold a pair of leads. He was yanked with no outs in the fifth after the first four Pirates reached during the decisive four-run inning. The Cubs trailed 7-4 in the seventh when the Bucs scored two more off Antonio Alfonseca to put the game out of reach.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times