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Pirates look to make things tough for Cubs again

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Pirates would not seem to have a realistic shot at the postseason.

They sit 9 1/2 games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs in the National League Central, and they are 7 1/2 games behind the Colorado Rockies in the chase for the second NL wild card.

However, the past few days, the Pirates (67-73) gave the Cubs (76-63) a taste of the kind of tough games that Chicago might expect in the playoffs.

The Cubs won a 1-0 pitchers' duel Wednesday after dropping the first two games of a series at PNC Park 12-0 and 4-3. The four-game set concludes Thursday night.

"Great win," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after the Wednesday game. "Pretty significant after (Tuesday) night's tough loss."

The defending World Series champions, who have been in first in the division since July 27, will aim to salvage a split in the four-game set Thursday night. Chicago is four games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals and 4 1/2 up on the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.

The Cubs' Wednesday starter, Jose Quintana, wasn't part of the championship club last season, but he is caught up in the mentality.

"I've never had the opportunity (to be in a pennant race)," said Quintana, who threw six shutout innings but got a no-decision. "To be here and be close to the playoffs ... We haven't won anything yet, but we try to continue in this race every single day.

"It's special to win a game like that when you lost the last two games."

The Pirates got some strong work from some of their young pitchers during a four-game winning streak that ended Wednesday despite the fine work of Gerrit Cole. He threw eight shutout innings, but Chicago got to reliever Daniel Hudson for a run in the ninth.

"It's been really encouraging to see the workloads, because it's hard to quantify how much of a difference it is pitching in August in Triple-A vs. August in the big leagues, and then you pile another month on it to what they're doing against the quality of competition they're pitching against," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said.

Pirates right-hander Jameson Taillon (7-5, 4.50 ERA) heads to the mound Thursday after getting a no-decision his last time out despite a strong performance. He pitched six scoreless innings Saturday, allowing three hits, in the Pirates' 5-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds.

That might have been a slump-busting outing. Taillon hasn't won since Aug. 11 and is 2/3 with a 6.75 ERA in 10 starts since the All-Star break.

"I haven't really had that tough of a stretch like I just had at this level. It's tough," Taillon said before Saturday. "This is the best league in the world. Results are all that matters. In the minor leagues, there's always developmental things. Up here, you want to pitch well and keep your team in games.

"It's my first year going start to finish in the big leagues. I want to finish strong. I want to go out on a high note. Each start's an opportunity for me to learn something new about what I do and my craft.

"More than anything, I've learned that I belong. Good start or bad start, I feel like I'm a major league starting pitcher."

Taillon is 2-2 with a 3.68 ERA in four career starts against the Cubs, and he is 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA in two starts against Chicago this season.

Chicago will go with Jon Lester (9-7, 4.46 ERA). The veteran left-hander returned from the disabled list (shoulder fatigue) Saturday to face the Atlanta Braves, and he allowed four runs in five innings to pick up a win in a 14-12 Cubs blowout.

Lester could have nightmares when it comes to the Pirates.

This will be his first start against Pittsburgh since July 9, when he gave up 10 runs in two-thirds of an inning -- the first time in his career he got pulled in the first inning and the first time since 1998 a team scored 10 or more runs in the first against the Cubs.

"It kind of speaks for itself," Lester said. "It's embarrassing."

In 11 career starts against the Pirates, he is 4-5 with a 3.39 ERA. Lester is 0-2 with a 6.08 ERA in three starts against Pittsburgh this season.

He is 2-2 with a 3.99 ERA in five starts at PNC Park.

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