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Cubs open up series tonight in Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh Pirates have looked down and out at
points this season, with key players missing for various reasons,
the offense sputtering at times, the pitching inconsistent at
others.

Yet they are entering a stretch that could turn things considerably
brighter -- or darker.

Their series opener tonight at PNC Park against the defending
champion Chicago Cubs, a team struggling mightily on the road, is
Pittsburgh's first of 10 straight games within the National League
Central.

Even at 30-36, the Pirates are hanging in there in a division that
seems mediocre at best. Going into this stretch, the Pirates won
four games in a row before dropping the series finale against
Colorado on Wednesday. They have won or split three of their four
series in June.

Pittsburgh kept Colorado's potent offense mostly at bay, giving up
nine runs in three games while scoring 13.

"(Colorado) is a really good team, a really big test," said rookie
starter Chad Kuhl, who despite taking the loss in the series finale
had one of his better outings.

"Sweeping them would have been nice, but taking the series from
them is big."

A sweep of the Cubs, if the Pirates could pull it off, would move
it a half-game ahead of the champs.

In the Cubs (32-33), the Pirates will be facing a club that lost to
the New York Mets 9-4 on Wednesday. It was Chicago's 10th loss in
its past 11 road games, and the team fell below .500 overall.

Chicago hasn't won consecutive road games since April 24-25.

"We've 'earned' the right to be in this position," Cubs manager Joe
Maddon said. "We have a nice group. I believe in our group, but we
have to prove it on the field.

"There's some certain unpredictability about us. That's why we're a
.500 club. (We) don't play that same good game every day."

Anthony Rizzo said it's a multitude of things hindering the Cubs
away from Wrigley Field.

"We've just got to win," he said. "We've got to hold leads. We've
got to hit better with runners in scoring position. We've got to
give our pitchers better opportunities to come in with a bigger
lead.

"All the little things you've just got to get back to. We do a good
job, but we need to do a better job of it."

Chicago will send right-hander Eddie Butler (3-2, 4.03 ERA) against
Pittsburgh on Friday.

Butler, making his seventh start, has lasted at least five innings
in his past four starts. He will square off against Pirates
right-hander Trevor Williams (3-3, 5.13 ERA), who started the
season in the bullpen but has replaced Tyler Glasnow in the
rotation.

Williams is trying to find the consistency to convince Pittsburgh
to keep him there. He is coming off a no-decision against Miami
(four innings, five runs, six hits), in which he gave up
back-to-back homers in his final inning.

"The misfires, we're paying for," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle
said. "(He's) not executing soft stuff. (He's) leaving it up. It's
getting hammered."

That start followed the longest outing of Williams' career, seven
innings against the Mets, allowing just one run.

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