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Big innings burn Bucs in loss to Cubs

Big innings burn Bucs in loss to Cubs

CHICAGO -- In a season where bright spots have been at a premium, the Pirates have had a few at Chicago's expense. Wrigley Field had been Pittsburgh's friendly confines, and the Cubs had been a welcome opponent on the schedule.

That was, however, all before Monday, when the Cubs finally got their chance to laugh.

Joining the growing list of clubs exploiting the Pirates' road woes, the Cubs pounded the Pirates, 14-2, in front of Chicago's smallest home crowd (29,538) of the season.

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There was no intention to sugarcoat the loss -- No. 88 of the season -- by coating it with positives, either.

"You give up that many runs," manager John Russell said, "it's not going to look good no matter what you say about it."

Monday's loss extended the Pirates' road losing streak to 14 games, pushing the club closer to matching the 17-game road losing streak it endured earlier this summer. This skid, which dates back to July 29, may not yet be as long as that previous one, but in some ways, it has already seemed worse.

This time the losing can't be excused by noting all the recent rookie callups. This streak can't be explained by the Pirates sitting on the wrong end of a number of close games. This one doesn't come with the asterisk of Interleague Play.

Rather, these road woes have been collectively defined by inconsistent offense, unreliable pitching and plenty of fundamental lapses. It's the latter that is especially maddening to Russell, whose job could well hinge on the club's ability to at least play fundamentally-sound baseball through the season's final month.

Perhaps Russell is beginning to sense the pressure, too. He sat in the dugout, alone, for minutes after the loss.

"They're not the ones throwing the pitches," said Paul Maholm, defending the team's coaching staff. "It's our job to go out there and win games and do what we're supposed to. That can't be on your mind. We go out there and play hard every day, and that's all you can do."

Still, it's impossible to overlook the numbers.

The Pirates' overall road record now sits at 13-52, making Pittsburgh the only team with fewer than 21 road wins this season. It's also plenty realistic to think the Pirates might be on the way to the team's worst road record since 1900.

Not since 1952 -- when Pittsburgh pulled out just 19 wins away from home -- has the club not reached the 20-win road benchmark. In fact, the Pirates are even in jeopardy of falling short of the 21 road wins the 1994 club achieved in their strike-shortened, 53-game road slate.

Pittsburgh has 16 road games remaining to surpass any of those unflattering franchise lows.

"If we just keep playing hard and playing our game, things will turn around and we'll start winning some ballgames," Garrett Jones said. "We haven't been getting the wins, but we're playing hard-nosed baseball, hard all the way until the end."

The first step in turning things around is to forget about Monday's debacle. What started as a welcome trip back to Chicago, where the Pirates were 4-2 this year, ended as another scar on Maholm's season.

Three first-inning hits pushed across the two runs against him. The Cubs then sent 11 batters to the plate in the fourth, chasing Maholm from the game before the seven-run frame concluded.

Maholm faced seven of those 11 hitters, and only one -- opposing starter Carlos Zambrano, who laid down a sacrifice bunt -- didn't reach safely. Four runs crossed the plate before Russell made a pitching change.

"It's hard to pinpoint anything," Russell said. "He wasn't able to execute his pitches. Tough night."

Maholm did pinpoint one issue, one that he labels as the primary culprit in a season of inconsistencies. Once again, his once-reliable sinker abandoned him, leaving Maholm to endure the Cubs' breakout offensive night.

"Overthrowing, not getting into rhythm, trying to do too much with it, it hurt," said Maholm, who was charged with eight runs on nine hits in 3 1/3 innings. "You look back at every game that's kind of gone like this, and it's been the exact same thing. I wish in the middle of it I can fix it, but you've got to take a step back and look at it and figure it out from there."

As Maholm noted, this isn't the first time he's ended a start before completing four innings. He's now been unable to pitch that deep four different times this year. He didn't have a start of less than four innings in all of 2008 or 2009.

"I know what it is," Maholm said. "I need to fix it. It's going to be fixed next time. This is the most frustrating thing -- to have one or two good ones, and these games keep coming around."

The game didn't get much better upon Maholm's departure. Chicago sent nine batters to the plate in the fifth, this time scoring four runs off reliever Brian Burres. Two of those runs came on Zambrano's 21st career homer.

Pittsburgh's offense never had a chance to stay in the game, though its damage was minimal against Cubs' pitching. A three-base error by Alfonso Soriano set up an RBI opportunity for Pedro Alvarez, who doubled home one of the two unearned runs the team scored.

"Pick your guy," Chicago's interim manager Mike Quade said. "Zambrano settles down, takes care of business early in the game. We put a few runs on the board and everybody's happy. That's a formula we like to see every evening."

The Pirates, now 9-4 against the Cubs this year, have one more game to avoid their worst August record during the franchise's skid of 18 straight losing seasons. The club went 7-21 in 2008. This year's team currently sits at that mark.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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