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Cubs, Pirates might mix and match players in last week

PITTSBURGH -- Pirates manager Clint Hurdle substituted freely and often as Pittsburgh's game against the Chicago Cubs wore on Monday night.

That had everything to do with the score -- Chicago built a 12-run lead en route to a 12-2 blowout win -- but the Pirates could soon find themselves wanting to rotate in a lot of players for a different reason.

Pittsburgh's "tragic number" for being eliminated from the National League wild-card race was reduced to two, meaning the Pirates could be out of a shot for the playoffs as early as Tuesday night when the teams play the second of a four-game series at PNC Park.

At that point, like a lot of other teams, Pittsburgh could be reduced to looking at several players who might help them in the future -- a future that will come next year, not in October. Once eliminated, the Pirates' only real carrot could be finishing with a winning record.

"This year is what it is," Hurdle said.

While the Pirates (77-79) have lost four of five, the Cubs (100-56) have not hit a lull despite clinching the top record in the major leagues. Chicago won for the sixth time in seven games.

"There's a lot of self-motivators out there, a lot of accountable people," Chicago manager Joe Maddon said. "There's a lot of stuff going on right now. Beyond the team goals, we all like to see our guys get a chance to win some personal awards. So it's easy."

In addition, the Cubs are staying fresh by using a lot of players.

"We're rotating the stock," Maddon said. "Guys are coming in that are fresh. Guys that don't get a chance to play that often, they want to play and show what they've got."

Chicago is so loose in these final days of the regular season that Maddon had no qualms about approaching starter Kyle Hendricks during the fourth inning Monday -- while he was still the active pitcher -- simply to ask Hendricks about the nickname for Dartmouth, where Hendricks attended.

Hendricks told him it was the Big Green, settling a question that had been floating around the dugout during the game.

"I had no idea why he was asking me," Hendricks said with a laugh after he pitched six scoreless innings in the series-opening win.

For the second game of this series, Chicago is expected to go with right-hander John Lackey (10-8, 3.39 ERA), who will be making his 29th start. Lackey is 3-1 with a 2.39 ERA in his past eight outings.

He is 1-2 with a 3.69 ERA in six career starts against Pittsburgh.

The Pirates will counter with right-hander Ryan Vogelsong (3-6, 4.85 ERA). After coming back from facial surgery that was necessitated when he was hit by a pitch, he went 2-2 with a 2.48 ERA in his first five starts. However, since then, Vogelsong is 0-3 with a 9.14 ERA in four starts.

Against the Cubs, he is 5-8 with a 5.82 ERA in 21 career appearances, including 13 starts.