Cubs (83-66) at Pirates (68-81) Series Preview

PITTSBURGH, Pa. - As the days of September wind down to a precious few, every series from here on out becomes that much more important to the Wildcard-hungry Chicago Cubs, winners of seven of their last nine contests. They meet the Pittsburgh Pirates for the final time in 2004 beginning Tuesday night at PNC Park.

The Cubs come into the series a half-game behind the San Francisco Giants in the Wildcard race. Only recently have the Giants and Barry Bonds begin to think about the post-season more along the lines of division winners, rather than just Wildcard settlers. The Cubs are a different story, of course. Marred in a division that has been dominated top to bottom from the St. Louis Cardinals almost since day one, Dusty Baker's club has only the Wildcard spot to stake claim to.

The Pirates are a team of much dimmer hopes. Manager Lloyd McClendon, wrapping up his fourth year as Buccos skipper, will again field a team likely to finish in fourth place for the third year in a row. His Pirates are lead by Craig Wilson and the Jason's: Kendall and Bay. Kendall's .313 batting average is only a shade less than his final 2003 total. In 136 games with the Pirates, he has already eclipsed his walk totals from the past three seasons, with 57 on the year.

Likewise, Kendall is likely to break his 2003 total of 58 RBIs and drive in the most runs since his 1998 season with the Pirates, in which he finished with 78.

As for Wilson, it's been nothing short of a career-year for the 27-year-old outfielder/first baseman. His 27 homeruns and 78 RBIs lead the Pirates, just three ahead of Bay in both departments, respectively. Furthermore, Wilson has hit almost 40 points higher at PNC Park in 2004, with a .283 average and 15 homeruns in 72 games.

The Cubs come into the series having taken three of four from the struggling Cincinnati Reds and splitting a doubleheader Monday with the Florida Marlins. Derrek Lee went 0-for-4 in game two of Monday's doubleheader to snap his hitting streak at 10 games. In that span, Lee hit .358.

Third baseman Aramis Ramirez continues to swing a hot bat as well. Ramirez is five for his last ten and has gone 11-for-23 with three homeruns and six RBIs on this current road trip.

The Pirates will also be keeping tabs on catcher Michael Barrett. Barrett is hitting .439 against the Pirates with five homeruns and 15 RBIs this season, the most for any Cub against the Buccos in '04.

Moises Alou also poses a dangerous threat to Pirates pitchers. Alou is batting .440 in six games at PNC Park this season, and .362 overall against the Pirates in 2004. In his career, Alou has hit more homeruns and drive in more RBIs against only the St. Louis Cardinals. He has homered 36 times and driven in 99 lifetime against Pirate pitching.

Lastly, the Cubs hope Nomar Garciaparra will return to the starting lineup some time this week in Pittsburgh after missing 10 straight games due to a strained right groin. Garciaparra will be a sight for sore eyes, even in spite of the excellent play from his replacement, Neifi Perez, who is batting .373 in 14 games since joining the team.

Here are the pitching match-up's for the series:

Tuesday, September 21, 6:05 CT: Kerry Wood (8-7, 3.54) vs. Josh Fogg (9-10, 4.82) - WCIU

Wood is coming off his eighth victory of the season, a 5-4 Cubs win over the Cincinnati Reds last Thursday night that was fueled by a five-RBI night from Ramirez. The right-hander will make his fourth start of the year against the Pirates on Tuesday night. He is 1-2 with a 2.66 ERA against the Pirates in three previous starts in '04. In two of those starts, Wood went seven and eight innings against the Buccos, respectively, allowing a combined one run on four hits.

Through the years, Fogg has been one of the Cubs' favorite punching bags. The former top prospect with both the Pirates and White Sox, now in his third season as a starter, has gone just 1-2 with a 7.53 ERA in five starts this season alone against the Cubs. Lifetime, Fogg's ERA is over six against the Cubs. That is his worst mark against any Central division opponent with the exception of the Cardinals, who he is just 1-6 lifetime against with a 9.59 ERA in eight starts.

Wednesday, September 22, 6:05 CT: Carlos Zambrano (14-8, 2.74) vs. Oliver Perez (10-9, 3.22) - ESPN2/Fox Sports Chicago

This appears to be the best pitching match-up of the series. Zambrano enters play this week tied with Arizona's Randy Johnson for the National League lead in ERA at 2.74. The right-hander won his career-best 14th game in his last start on Friday night at Great American Ball Park, when he went seven innings and scattered just a run on six hits. His 169 strikeouts are also a career-best, and trail only Matt Clement for the team-lead in K's. Zambrano is 2-0 with a 1.23 ERA for the month of September.

Perez is quickly becoming one of the premier starters in the National League. His 217 strikeouts rank fourth in the league, and his 3.22 ERA places seventh, 10 points behind New York's Al Leiter. Fortunately for the Cubs, those numbers don't reflect his season statistics against the North siders. Perez has a 6.75 ERA in two starts against the Cubs this season. The left-hander has allowed more homeruns (5) versus the Cubs than any other team all year.

Thursday, September 23, 11:35 CT: Greg Maddux (14-10, 3.68) vs. John Van Benschoten (1-3, 6.91) - WGN

Maddux was the tough-luck loser in last Saturday night's 6-5 loss to Cincinnati. He cruised through the first five innings, but was charged with five earned runs in a sixth inning Reds rally. In typical Maddux fashion, the right-hander has come on strong since the All-Star break, going 7-3 with a 2.57 ERA in 12 starts. His 23 career wins against the Pirates are the most versus any NL Central team.

Van Benschoten is a rookie right-hander who was the Pirates first overall pick in the 2001 amateur draft out of Kent State. In five starts with the Buccos this season, he has walked more batters than he has struck out, with 19 BB's to only 18 K's. He started this past Saturday night against the New York Mets and lasted only a third of an inning, giving up six earned runs after throwing 33 pitches. Van Benschoten was 6-0 with a 2.22 ERA for the Pirates' Class-A team in Lynchburg back in 2003, but struggled in 23 starts at Triple-A Nashville in '04, where he was 4-11 with a 4.72 ERA.

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