James McDonald did everything he could to stop the Pirates' losing streak.
He pitched seven innings for the first time this season. He hit a bases-clearing double. But the bullpen squandered the lead he handed over as the Pirates' losing streak stretched to a season-high seven games.
A three-run eighth inning allowed the Cubs to re-take the lead and sweep the Pirates with a 7-6 win at PNC Park Thursday night. The Pirates had a 6-4 lead entering the eighth inning, but the Cubs tied the game without recording an out.
"The inning just got more complicated from there," manager Clint Hurdle said.
Game: Pirates vs. Padres, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
TV, radio: Root Sports, WPGB-FM 104.7.
Pitching: RHP Aaron Harang (9-3, 3.76) vs. RHP Jeff Karstens (8-5, 2.49).
Key matchup: Harang vs. Ryan Ludwick, 11 for 30 (.367) with three home runs in his career against his former teammate.
Of note: Karstens' 2.49 ERA ranks second in the National League.
Three Pirates relievers, Daniel McCutchen, Jason Grilli and Joe Beimel, entered and exited the game without retiring a batter.
Hurdle said he chose McCutchen to start the eighth because he had rested the past two days. McCutchen allowed a bloop single to Reed Johnson and a hard-hit single to Starlin Castro.
"Our team needed me to come through right there, trying to save our bullpen in the eighth," McCutchen said. "Outings happen. You hate it when they do, but they happen."
McCutchen then threw a pitch that barely hit Darwin Barney, loading the bases with none out.
"I don't know if it got him or not," said McCutchen, who took the loss. "I'm trying to go in there, and the ball ran on me."
Since he pitched 5 1/3 innings in a 19-inning game July 26 against the Atlanta Braves, McCutchen has allowed four runs in three innings, though he said he felt good Thursday.
"That was probably the problem," he said, noting that he may have been overthrowing a little bit.
Grilli relieved him and gave up a single to Aramis Ramirez that scored Johnson and cut the Pirates' lead to 6-5. Beimel replaced Grilli to face the left-handed Carlos Pena and walked him with the bases loaded to tie the score.
Jose Veras relieved Beimel and allowed a sacrifice fly to Marlon Byrd that put the Cubs ahead. Veras got out of the inning, but it was too late.
Hurdle said he wanted to avoid using Chris Resop and Tony Watson, if possible, and that Joel Hanrahan was going to pitch four outs for the save, but the opportunity never arose. Hanrahan pitched a scoreless ninth.
With the loss, the Pirates fell two games under .500.
McDonald used only 99 pitches to get through seven innings, his longest outing of the season. It was the first time he pitched that deep in a game since Sept. 13, 2010, when he pitched eight innings against the New York Mets on the road.
"Throwing more strikes," Hurdle said of how McDonald achieved that feat. "It can be as simple as that from time to time."
McDonald had a strange night: in addition to knocking in the first three runs of his career, he allowed four hits, three of them home runs. Geovany Soto homered in the third inning, and Pena and Blake DeWitt homered in the fourth. That gave the Cubs 10 home runs in the series.
"They have an offense that can hit," Hurdle said. "We did miss a lot of locations. We elevated a lot of pitches."
Cubs starter Rodrigo Lopez allowed six runs on seven hits in four innings. Jeff Samardzija earned the win, and Carlos Marmol notched his 23rd save.
In the fourth, the wheels came off for Lopez. He had allowed only a Xavier Paul single through the first three, but he allowed six runs on six hits in the fourth, a rally that started with a Garrett Jones double.
Jones took third on Neil Walker's groundout and scored on Ryan Ludwick's single, which gave Ludwick his first hit and RBI as a Pirate. Pedro Alvarez and Ryan Doumit singled, and Paul grounded into a force-out to score Ludwick.
Brandon Wood walked to load the bases, and McDonald lined a double into left-center field, clearing the bases and firing a salute towards his bench when he reached second.
"It felt good to get a big hit in that situation," he said.
Andrew McCutchen's double scored McDonald, and when it was over the Pirates led, 6-4.
McDonald settled down after the Pirates took the lead, pitching a perfect fifth.
He allowed only one base runner the rest of the way, when Ramirez reached on Alvarez's error.
The Pirates begin a three-game series at home tonight against the San Diego Padres, who are in last place in their division.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org .