The home team might be down, but the Cubs are on the rise, separating themselves from the rest of the National League Central, but not by enough to hit cruise control. Not yet, anyway.
"It's crunch time here and the race is heating up," Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said. "It makes for fun baseball. I know everybody here shows up ready to go and focused. I don't think there's added pressure. It's more fun because the games mean more."
Key to the club's surge has been Jake Arrieta, who is scheduled to start the opener of the four-game series. After a slow start, the veteran right-hander is looking more like the pitcher who was 40-14 with a 2.39 ERA the last two seasons.
After 10 starts in 2017, Arieta found himself saddled with a 5-4 record and a 4.92 ERA. But the 2015 National League Cy Young Award winner has turned this season around, going 9-4 with a 2.49 ERA. He has been even better since the All-Star break (6-1, 1.59). In his most recent start, Arrieta, the NL Pitcher of the Month for August, held the Pirates scoreless over six innings in a 4-1 Cubs victory. Lacking his best, he still was effective.
"I feel confident that even if I don't have my good stuff, or if I'm without two pitches, the two pitches I have are more than enough to get the job done," he said.
Right-hander Chad Kuhl (6-10, 4.54), the scheduled Pirates starter, has been up and down -- mostly down. After three effective outings to start the season, Kuhl hit the skids, his ERA rising to 6.29 in late May. He has since whittled it down, but hasn't exceeded 5 1/3 innings in each of his past seven outings.
Three things to know about this game
• After the All-Star break, Arrieta has yielded four home runs in 56 2/3 innings. Opponents are hitting .189 with a 574 OPS, and he has walked 17 while striking out 54.
• Kuhl is giving up an average of 0.8 home runs per nine innings, which would put him in a tie for second place in the Majors with the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg and the Brewers' Jimmy Nelson, but he falls just short of having enough innings to qualify.
• Alex Avila was expected to catch for the Cubs on Monday. Manager Joe Maddon says he'll rotate between Avila, a left-handed hitter, and Rene Rivera, a right-handed batter, depending on the opposing pitcher.
Bob Cohn is a contributor to MLB.com based in Pittsburgh and covered the Pirates on Sunday.