The National League wild-card race will heat up this week when two of the top contenders — the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates — hook up for a three-game series in Pittsburgh. The Cubs have won five straight and six of seven to move 10 games above .500 for the first time since the end of the 2008 season, pulling into a tie with San Francisco for the second wild card and within four games of the Pirates.
Chicago could begin the series without rookie third baseman Kris Bryant, who left Sunday’s contest due to dizziness after a collision sliding into second and will be reevaluated Monday. The Pirates salvaged a split of their four-game set in Cincinnati with a 3-0 win Sunday in a game marred by the benches clearing after each team hit a batter. After shutting out the Reds on six hits Sunday, the Pirates look for more of the same from left-hander Francisco Liriano, who was dominant at home (8-1, 1.47 ERA) in his first season with the Pirates in 2013 but has struggled to a 5-9 mark and a 4.04 ERA at PNC Park over the past two seasons. Liriano will oppose another tough lefty in Cubs ace Jon Lester, who makes his first start in Pittsburgh since 2011 with Boston.
TV: 7:05 p.m. ET, ESPN, CSN Chicago, ROOT (Pittsburgh)
LINE HISTROY: The Pirates opened as -130 home favorites and have been bet down to -127. The total has held steady at its opening number of 6.5.
Cubs – 3B K. Bryant (questionable Monday, head), RP N. Ramirez (15-day DL, abdominal), C M. Montero (15-day DL thumb), RP Z. Rosscup (15-day DL, shoulder), SP T. Wada (15-day DL, shoulder), 2B T. La Stella (60-day DL, ribs), SP J. Turner (60-day DL, shoulder).
Pirates – SP A. Burnett (15-day DL, elbow), 3B J. Harrison (Late Aug, thumb), SS J. Mercer (Early Sept, knee), RF C. Hart (60-day DL, shoulder), LF A. Lambo (60-day DL, foot).
WEATHER REPORT: There is a chance of thunderstorms and a 63 percent chance of rain at game time. There will also be a moderate hitter wind blowing at nine miles per hour out to left field.
HOT FAN WAR:
PITCHING MATCHUP: Cubs LH Jon Lester (6-8, 3.26 ERA) vs. Pirates LH Francisco Liriano (7-6, 2.92)
Lester has pitched like the ace the Cubs signed him to be in the second half, going 2-0 with a 1.61 ERA over three starts since the break. The 31-year-old has recorded quality starts in three straight outings and five of his last six, piling up 50 strikeouts against five walks over 43 1/3 innings in July. Lester beat the Pirates on May 16 in Chicago, allowing one run and nine hits over seven innings while striking out seven.
The Pirates have won Liriano’s last six starts with the 31-year-old going 3-0 with a 2.13 ERA over that span. The native of the Dominican Republic had his streak of five straight quality starts snapped last time out, as he allowed three runs (two earned) and a season-high 10 hits over 5 2/3 frames at Minnesota. Liriano is 4-2 with a 2.56 ERA in 10 starts against the Cubs, including a no-decision earlier this season.
* Over is 5-1-1 in the last seven meetings in Pittsburgh.
* Cubs are 6-1 in Lester’s last seven starts against the NL Central.
* Pirates are 7-0 in Liriano’s last seven starts as a favorite.
* Under is 7-0 in Lester’s last seven starts versus a team with a winning record.
COVERS CONSENSUS: The public is giving the edge to Pittsburgh with 64.31 percent of wagers backing the Pirates.