Their grip on the second National League wild-card spot is not as comfortable as it once was, and the Chicago Cubs are hoping to regain some of their lead during their final homestand of the season.
Tied with the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cubs return home and host the Pittsburgh Pirates in the opener of a three-game series and 10-game homestand on Friday afternoon.
Chicago (78-68) finished its previous homestand holding a 2 1/2-game lead on the Philadelphia Phillies on Sept. 3. The Cubs also held a five-game lead on Milwaukee after getting a 10-5 victory over the Brewers on Sept. 5 but are 2-5 since.
In that span of seven games, Milwaukee has won seven straight, the New York Mets are 5-2 and Philadelphia is 4-3. That has not only created a deadlock for the second spot, but also pushed those four teams within two games of each other. The Arizona Diamondbacks are 3 1/2 games out after getting swept in a four-game series by the Mets.
The Cubs, meanwhile, settled for a split in San Diego. After losing the previous two games, Chicago ended its four-game series by getting a dynamic 14-strikeout performance by Yu Darvish in six innings in Thursday's 4-1 victory.
Chicago's 47-24 home record is the best among the teams vying for the second wild-card spot, but its 31-44 road record is the worst. The Cubs are 3-5 in their last eight games at Wrigley Field and also face the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals in the next week.
"These next two-plus weeks we just need to win -- I don't care how it's done," Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo told reporters after Wednesday's game. "I don't care if it's pretty or ugly. We just have to win. That's all we can do.
"If we don't win games, we're going to be going barbecuing too early. We believe in each other. We're here for one another. But we've got to win."
A stretch of 30 losses in 38 games coming out of the All-Star break pushed Pittsburgh (65-82) out of contention, but the Pirates are a respectable 13-7 in their last 20 games.
Pittsburgh has lost seven of its last eight games at Wrigley Field and heads there after Joe Musgrove pitched five scoreless innings in a 4-2 win at San Francisco on Thursday.
The Pirates may play a role in who gets the second wild-card spot. They have six games with the Cubs and visit Milwaukee next weekend.
"We're out to win every game," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle told reporters. "There's lessons that can be learned every day. The game develops cohesion. It takes collaboration."
Jon Lester (12-10, 4.51 ERA), who is 3-4 with a 6.91 ERA in his last eight starts, opens the series for Chicago. Lester is coming off one of his worst outings of the season when he allowed eight runs on seven hits in 5 1/3 innings of Sunday's 8-5 loss in Milwaukee.
The veteran left-hander is 11-6 with a 3.02 ERA in 21 career starts against the Pirates.
Steven Brault (4-4, 4.13) opens the series for Pittsburgh and hopes to continue his success in road games. He is 4-0 with a 4.11 ERA in 11 appearances (eight starts) away from Pittsburgh.
Brault was tagged for six runs (five earned) on six hits in 5 1/3 innings in a 10-1 loss to St. Louis on Saturday. The left-hander is 0-1 with a 6.31 ERA in 13 career games (four starts) against Chicago.
--Field Level Media
Scuffling Cubs set for final homestand vs. Pirates