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06/29/09 10:31 PM ET

Pirates can't capitalize in loss to Cubs

Team can ill afford to miss chances in critical stretch

PITTSBURGH -- There was a sense of urgency in manager John Russell's voice prior to what ended up as an opportunities-missed, 3-1 loss to the Cubs in front of 15,400 at PNC Park on Monday night.

Not one to regularly emphasize the importance of one series over another, Russell didn't shy away from highlighting how critical this stretch of 13 games -- one that began Monday and concludes at the All-Star break -- is for his club.

He's taken a look at the standings, which had Pittsburgh five games back of division leaders Milwaukee and St. Louis at the start of the day. And with the Cubs -- one of the five teams still sitting ahead of the Pirates in the division -- in town and a nine-game road trip looming to end the first half, this, Russell said, is the time for the Pirates to make a move.

"We need to play well," Russell said. "Whether people realize it or not, we're right there. If we can start sneaking a few games here or there and continue to play well, we really feel like we're right there where we need to be."

Monday seemed to hold promise for that first step up in the standings, with Zach Duke, winner in each of his last five starts at PNC Park, taking the mound and the Cubs coming in having lost six of seven. However, Chicago would foil those plans, as well as Duke's quest to become the National League's fifth pitcher to reach the nine-win mark this season.

The Cubs tagged Duke for one run in three of the first four innings, effectively sealing the game that early as the Pirates' offense proved powerless in any effort to come back.

"We've got to find a way to break that game out and get a couple of runs," Russell said. "We just didn't."

The lack of run support is nothing new for Duke, who has watched his offense give him just five total runs in his six losses. In fact, half of those losses, including Monday's, have been in games where Duke made a quality start.

"I just concentrate on giving us a chance to win," Duke said afterward, brushing away any consolation that he's pitched well in his losses.

"I think we've struggled to give a lot of pitchers support this year," second baseman Freddy Sanchez said, more pointedly. "We've been inconsistent up and down. We just haven't been able to give any run support on any consistent basis."

The offense wasn't solely at fault for getting nothing early, as Cubs starter Rich Harden used a devastating fastball-changeup combination in striking out five of the first 10 hitters he faced while limiting the Pirates to one single in four innings.

"It's never fun to face him," said outfielder Brandon Moss, who got his first hit in five career tries against Harden with a single in the sixth. "His changeup was just really good tonight. He kept it down, and you saw how many swings and misses he got on it."

But then, the Pirates started having their chances. After scoring once in the fifth, three straight two-out singles brought up Sanchez with the bases loaded. Sanchez fell behind, 0-2, quickly and grounded out to end the threat.

The Pirates would strand another two runners in the sixth. Sanchez, with a chance to redeem himself from his previous at-bat, then grounded into an inning-ending double play in the seventh after coming up with two runners on base.

"I get a hit in any of those situations and it could be a different ballgame," Sanchez said. "Those are the situations you want to be in, and I didn't get the job done tonight. In that aspect, it's frustrating. I wasn't able to come up for the team tonight."

The Pirates would then go down in order against the two Chicago relievers in the final two frames.

"We got some opportunities and just couldn't come up with the big hit," Russell said. "I thought we had the right guys at the plate and just couldn't get it done tonight."

Duke's efficiency allowed him to finish seven innings for the 10th time this season, and he would have gone further if the Pirates hadn't needed to pinch-hit in his spot. Duke threw just 89 pitches, 66 for strikes.

He finished by retiring 12 of the last 14 hitters he faced, but his outing was defined more by how it started.

"I didn't quite get them where I wanted them with two strikes in a couple instances," the lefty said, "and that made the difference."

He intended to bury an 0-2 curveball to Cubs second baseman Andres Blanco in the dirt back in the second, but left it up enough for Blanco to drive in a run with a two-out single. Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot then took the Pirates left-hander deep an inning later before Duke's mistake to Milton Bradley in the fourth pushed the Cubs' lead to three.

"I wanted to bounce the ball as well, and he got the bat to it, too," Duke said of that 1-2 curveball. "It's tough."

Relievers Evan Meek and Jesse Chavez kept the deficit at two with scoreless innings of relief. But the Pirates' chances of sealing their second winning month in one season -- something the club hasn't accomplished since 1994 -- fell short. They'll have one more chance to do so on Tuesday.

"At this point, this may be one of the biggest series to date for us because we need to keep some momentum going and take this series," Sanchez said. "This team is in our division and we're going to have to play this team tough."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.