(Sports Network) - The Chicago Cubs hope to get a needed spark from Carlos Zambrano when the fiery pitcher returns to a starting role for tonight's finale of a three-game series with the Pittsburgh Pirates from PNC Park.
Zambrano, a three-time National League All-Star who's averaged better than 14 wins over the past seven seasons, was shifted to the bullpen in late April after going 1-2 with a subpar 7.45 earned run average in four starts. The excitable Venezuelan has pitched significantly better as a reliever lately, having not allowed a run in any of his last five appearances, which prompted manager Lou Piniella to insert him back in the rotation in place of the struggling Tom Gorzelanny.
The accomplished right-hander is 11-8 with a 4.16 ERA in 29 lifetime games (25 starts) against Pittsburgh, but was dealt a loss by the Pirates in relief back on May 14 after giving up a go-ahead three-run homer to Garrett Jones in the eighth inning.
Piniella hopes the switch can help his club solve its continued recent struggles against Pittsburgh. The Pirates have won seven of the eight matchups between the NL Central foes this season, including the first two tests of this three-game set, and are 9-1 in their last 10 encounters with the Cubs. Chicago has lost all five of its games played in the Steel City so far this year as well.
Pittsburgh's mastery of the Cubs continued with last night's 3-2 decision, in which the Bucs went in front on Neil Walker's two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning.
With the Pirates trailing 2-1, Andrew McCutchen drew a one-out walk off Cubs starter Ted Lilly and Walker followed by clubbing an 0-1 pitch over the fence in left for his first major league home run.
"I thought [Lilly] was about to get pulled," Walker said. "I didn't think he was going to face me. Fortunately I had three terrible at-bats against him, so I think that's one of the reasons he stayed in the game. I wanted to be aggressive there, I got a pitch over the plate and I was able to drive it."
Jones also homered in the win and finished 2-for-4 for Pittsburgh, which had lost five in a row prior to rallying for a 2-1 decision in Monday's opener of this series. Octavio Dotel worked a 1-2-3 ninth for his 12th save of the season.
The Cubs suffered their third straight defeat and now have dropped five of their last seven tilts to fall to a disappointing 24-29 on the season.
"It's frustrating on everyone," said outfielder Xavier Nady, who went 4-for-4 and accounted for all of Chicago's scoring with a two-run homer in the third inning. "You plan on getting big hits and getting things going. But offensively, we're not doing it, there's no way around it.
Lilly (1-5) worked 7 2/3 innings and surrendered all three runs on six hits, while striking out six and walking four.
While the Pirates have enjoyed great success against the Cubs as of late, that trend hasn't carried over to Zach Duke's starts in this series. The left- hander has lost eight consecutive decisions to Chicago and is winless in his last 13 starts versus the Cubs, having last topped the club back on May 2, 2006.
Duke will also be seeking to bounce back from an awful performance his last time out, when the 2009 All-Star was rocked for seven runs and 12 hits in 5 1/3 innings in a loss at Atlanta last Friday. He had been very sharp in his previous two outings, yielding just two runs -- one earned -- over a combined 13 frames in a May 18 win at Philadelphia and a no-decision against the Braves five days later.
The 27-year-old, who's 4-8 with a 3.67 ERA in 17 career starts against Chicago, has compiled a 3-5 mark with a 5.09 ERA in 11 games this season.