Series Preview: Cubs (4-5) at Pirates (3-6)

The Cubs embark on their longest road trip of April and May when they visit Pittsburgh this weekend to begin a seven-game, three-city stop. The Cubs play three games against the Pirates before a pair of short, two-game series' against the Reds and Cardinals next week.

For now anyway, the Cubs appear to have a healthy starting rotation, as Mark Prior pitched phenomenally in his first start of the season against San Diego on Wednesday. But despite the questions concerning the pitching staff, and in particular the health of Prior and Kerry Wood, it has been the offense that has been somewhat stagnant thus far in 2005. The Cubs have scored more than four runs in a game only twice since opening day and rank ninth in the National League in batting average.

Derrek Lee has been one of the few hot spots in the Cubs' lineup, hitting .364 with two home runs and 11 RBI. He is the only Cub to have multiple home runs and to have produced more than five RBI to this point. Nomar Garciaparra and Michael Barrett have consistently underproduced, hitting under .200, respectively.

Still, the Pirates are a welcome sight for most any team with an offense looking to get back on track in the young 2005 season. The Buccos have struggled against the traditionally weak Brewers, losing four of five to Milwaukee already this year, and if the Cubs thought they had problems at the plate, the Pirates can certainly argue that they are in no better a situation. Pittsburgh has no one with more than one home run and four RBI to date this season, as are the numbers for catcher David Ross. The team is batting just .241 through their first nine games.

Here is a look at this weekend's pitching matchups:

Friday, 6:05 p.m. CDT: Carlos Zambrano (1-0) vs. Oliver Perez (0-2) - TV: CSN

On paper, this looks like a no-brainer. Zambrano is coming off a dominant performance in his second start after a shaky first outing on Opening Day and has always performed traditionally well against the Pirates, particularly at PNC Park where he is 3-0 lifetime with a 3.24 ERA. He pitched 7 1/3 innings of one-hit ball against the Brewers on Saturday, picking up his first victory of the year and lowering his ERA to 2.25 to go with 14 strikeouts on the season.

Meanwhile, Perez has failed thus far in being the Pirates' supposed ace, lasting no more than five innings in each of his first two starts. He has given up 11 runs in just nine innings of work for an ERA over 10 and has walked eight batters while striking out just 10.

Saturday, 6:05 p.m. CDT: Greg Maddux (0-1) vs. Kip Wells (0-2) - TV: CSN

With both pitchers going for their first victory of the season, something is going to have to give. Maddux hasn't exactly been deserving of a win so far this season, and if he allows home runs to fly off the bats of opponents as they did in his first two starts (four in 10 innings total), it could be a long afternoon for the former Cy Young Award winner. Maddux will be going for career win No. 25 against the Pirates.

Wells hasn't had much more success than Maddux so far this season. He has allowed six runs in each of his first two outings, but showed promise his last time out by pitching into the seventh inning. Wells is 3-0 lifetime versus the Cubs with a 2.27 ERA in 10 starts.

Sunday, 12:35 p.m. CDT: Ryan Dempster (0-2) vs. Mark Redman (1-0) - TV: WGN

Dempster is making his third start of the season and despite both previous starts being losses, his outings could not have been further opposites. Arizona roughed up Dempster in his first start, as he failed to make it through the fourth inning. He surrendered seven earned runs in only 3 2/3 innings that night, but rebounded in his second start on Monday against the Padres, giving up just four hits while not allowing an earned run and striking out seven.

Redman is making a strong case to be the ace of the Pirate rotation. The left-hander should be 2-0, having given up just two runs in 12 innings of work. He has posted an impressive 1.50 ERA and has eight strikeouts on the season to just one walk. Redman is 2-0 lifetime in as many starts against the Cubs with no earned runs allowed.

Cary Dohman can be reached for comment at

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