CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs have always found reason to remain optimistic despite the times this season when they have struggled to score runs. The reason? Boasting the National League's best record and holding down the top spot in the Central Division have kept them from losing hope.
But as the Cubs wind down the regular season this week starting with Tuesday's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the reality of a tight-knit race in the Central and the inability to push runs across at critical times no longer can be ignored.
The Cubs were unable to do their part in reducing their magic number following a 5-1 loss to the Pirates on Monday in which Chicago left the bases loaded once and stranded a runner in scoring position with the Cubs trailing by a pair of runs. Chicago's lone run on Monday came on a solo home run by pitcher Cole Hamels.
"The offense has taken a hit -- there's no question," manager Joe Maddon told reporters earlier this month, according to the Arlington Heights Daily Herald. "There's just no other way to look at it. I think we have to find that within ourselves."
As the Cubs finish off this week against divisional rivals, they face an increasingly growing possibility they could face either the Milwaukee Brewers or the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs as the two NL Central foes currently hold down the top spots in the wild-card race.
"Who has the advantage (in the playoffs)? I don't know. Whoever pitches better that night has the advantage," Maddon told reporters Monday, according to the Chicago Tribune. "It's hard to do something different or new because both sides know each other pretty well. I totally agree with that. I've worried about that in the past, but I think I've learned not to because if you trust your players and put everyone out there and you're in good health, you have just as good a shot as they do."
But before the Cubs can turn their focus to the postseason, they must still find a way to finish strong this week.
Mike Montgomery (5-5, 3.75 ERA) will take the mound for the Cubs on Tuesday. Montgomery is coming off a solid six-inning effort against the Arizona Diamondbacks, who he held to one earned run and four hits while striking out eight. Montgomery is 3-0 with a 2.30 ERA in nine career appearances (three starts) against Pittsburgh.
Chris Archer will face Montgomery as he looks for his third victory since joining the Pirates earlier this season. Archer (5-8, 4.49) allowed just one run and six hits and struck out eight over seven innings in his last outing against the Kansas City Royals. Archer is 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA in three career starts against the Cubs.
After Jameson Taillon shut down the Cubs on Monday, Archer hopes to build on his recent performance.
"The one thing I hang my hat on is making starts and pitching deep into ballgames," Archer said after his last start, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "Giving up way more runs than I wanted to this year, but the thing that frustrates me the most is my average innings. It has to be the lowest of my career, but there's a correlation. The better you pitch, the deeper you pitch into games."