CHICAGO -- It wasn't all that long ago that the Pittsburgh Pirates found themselves in the thick of the race in the National League Central Division.
But if the Pirates can't find a way to turn things around, any thought of remaining in that conversation will be long gone. Finding their footing over the next few days won't be easy, either.
The Pirates begin a three-game series against the rival Chicago Cubs on Friday at Wrigley Field. Pittsburgh arrives at Wrigley Field fresh off an 8-7 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday that handed the Pirates their sixth consecutive series loss.
Pittsburgh has lost four of its past six games and now faces the surging Cubs, who took of three games from the Pirates the last week of May. Chicago enters the series having won 10 of its last 12 games after a 4-3 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.
Despite their recent struggles, the Pirates remain hopeful they can turn things around.
"I know every game's important, but over the course of the season, there are going to be ups and downs," Pirates first baseman Josh Bell said earlier this week, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "This is just a rut we're in. Hopefully, we can turn it around. If it's not tomorrow, then it's definitely going to be soon."
Said manager Clint Hurdle on Thursday: "Work to be done."
Chad Kuhl will attempt to cool off the Cubs on Friday when he starts the series for the Pirates. Kuhl (4-3, 3.86 ERA) is looking for his first victory since May 6 and has had four no-decisions in his past five outings. Kuhl has struggled against the Cubs throughout his career and is 1-5 in seven career starts with a 7.02 ERA.
The Cubs, whose recent hot streak includes a dramatic come-from-behind victory over the Phillies on Wednesday capped off by Jason Heyward's walk-off grand slam with two outs and two strikes in the ninth inning.
Anthony Rizzo sparked Thursday's series-clincher with a home run and a sacrifice fly. Rizzo's fifth-inning sacrifice produced what amounted to be the game-winning run as Albert Almora, Jr., scored after being originally called out before video replay determined Phillies catcher Andrew Knapp had illegally blocked home plate.
The Cubs have now captured four straight series and five of their past six.
Mike Montgomery (1-1, 3.89 ERA) will make his third start of the season for the Cubs on Friday. Montgomery has been called upon to start of late while Yu Darvish remains on the disabled list with inflammation in his right triceps. Montgomery earned his first win of the season with 5 2/3 shutout innings against the Pirates on May 28 before getting a no-decision in his last outing against the New York Mets when he allowed a run on two hits over six innings.
Montgomery is 2-0 with a 2.53 ERA in a pair of career starts against the Pirates and is quickly adjusting to being a starter while Darvish remains out of the rotation.
"I've been a starter my whole career growing up," Montgomery told reporters after his last start, according to the Chicago Tribune. "It's natural to have that mindset and even more so as a starter than in the bullpen. To get deep into games, you got to attack the strike zone and let them put it in play and go for your strikeouts here and there."