CHICAGO -- The Pirates' downward spiral continued Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, as they dropped their seventh straight game to fall to just one game above .500.
Despite extending their season-long losing streak, the Pirates are still in the National League Wild Card race, only three games behind the Cardinals.
With all of Pittsburgh's struggles -- the losing streak, dropping 10 straight on the road and winning only twice in its last 13 games -- the players continue to insist their confidence is intact as they fight for a playoff berth and their first winning season in two decades.
Most players, at least.
Another rough start from James McDonald on Friday caused manger Clint Hurdle to say it doesn't appear the right-hander has any conviction in his pitches.
McDonald didn't deny it.
"I would say at times, probably," said McDonald, who lasted only 3 2/3 innings. "There were times where I might think too much when throwing a pitch rather than just pitch; just go out there and throw and have confidence in every pitch I throw."
McDonald's second-half struggles continued Friday, as the right-hander once again displayed wildness and ineffectiveness. He allowed a leadoff double and walked the bases loaded in the fourth before getting pulled.
In between, McDonald (12-8, 4.05 ERA) allowed at least two runners to reach in each inning and gave up four runs with four walks in 3 2/3 innings. His second-half ERA climbed to 5.84 in 12 starts, a stark contrast to a first half in which he went 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA.
"When I was 2-0 in the first half, it didn't matter to me. I knew I had confidence and the next pitch I threw was going to be a good pitch, regardless if he hit or not," McDonald said. "Now at times things are going through my head like, 'Oh, I have to do this, I have to do that.' In the first half I didn't think about, 'I have to.' I just thought, 'I am going to,' or, 'There's the glove, I'm going to throw it there.'"
The four-run hole McDonald put the Pirates in was cut to one in the middle innings when left fielder Starling Marte began a two-run sixth with a single, knocking Cubs starter Chris Rusin out of the game. Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez recorded consecutive singles, with Sanchez's scoring Marte to make it a 4-2 game. Michael McKenry then walked to load the bases.
Cubs left-hander James Russell induced a run-scoring groundout by Pedro Alvarez and, after walking Clint Barmes, struck out Neil Walker. The pinch-hit appearance was Walker's first action since Aug. 26.
That missed opportunity proved costly in the bottom of the inning, when Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro launched Jared Hughes' first-pitch sinker into the left-field seats for his 13th homer of the season and a 7-3 Cubs lead.
McDonald's early troubles led to the Pirates tying a club record by sending eight pitchers to the mound in a nine-inning game. That included right-hander Bryan Morris, who made his Major League debut with a perfect eighth.
Rusin (1-2, 5.06 ERA), meanwhile, held the Pirates hitless through the first four innings in his fourth Major League start. The lefty earned his first career win, allowing two runs on four hits while striking out six in five-plus innings.
"He had a lot more life on everything today," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "When you strike out [center fielder Andrew] McCutchen twice, you're doing something right. Not too many left-handers get that guy out."
McCutchen hit his 27th homer of the year in the seventh, while Pittsburgh's first run came on an RBI single by Alvarez in the fifth when the third baseman drove in Sanchez, whose leadoff double was the Bucs' first hit of the day.
Although McCutchen's second-half slump has coincided with the Pirates' slide, McDonald's struggles were more visible Friday. The young right-hander might be tiring -- he matched his career high of 171 innings Friday -- but it's tough to use that as an excuse when McDonald admits his confidence is shaken.
"If there's anything other than positive thought or total commitment, I think you can get sideways out there on the mound or second base or in the batter's box," Hurdle said. "We've talked long and hard here about [how] you have to have ownership of your confidence.
"Nobody should be able to take your confidence from you, and you can't let your confidence be a direct correlation of your results of the last game you pitched or the last two games you pitched."
As McDonald admitted Friday, that's getting harder and harder for the young right-hander to do.