CHICAGO -- The Pirates apparently are confronted with a Sisyphean task in their quest to at least reach .500 this season.
Yesterday, for the third time in the past five games, they could have reached the break-even mark with a victory.
And for the third time in those five games they lost -- this time 7-4 to nemesis Chicago -- and slipped back to two games under .500.
"But it's not like the rock fell all the way back," Pirates bench coach Gary Varsho said.
The Pirates are better off than Sisyphus, a mythical Greek king who never did reach .500. And never did reach the top of a hill with his rock, which he was sentenced to push up that hill for eternity only to have it roll back to the bottom each time.
Or so the myth goes.
The Pirates' problem yesterday was they couldn't get the rock -- or baseball -- past the Cubs' hitters. Starter Tom Gorzelanny allowed four home runs -- three in the first two innings as the Cubs built a 6-0 mountain for the Pirates to climb.
"You give up six runs in the first two innings against this team, it's very difficult to come back," Pirates manager John Russell said. "We just really never gave ourselves a chance."
Beating the Cubs has become something of Sisyphean task for the Pirates, too.
They're 0-7 against the National League Central leaders this season -- having been outscored, 59-28 -- and have lost 10 consecutive games to the Cubs dating to last September.
- Game: Pirates vs. Chicago Cubs, 1:05 p.m., Wrigley Field.
- TV, Radio: FSN, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Zach Duke (2-2, 4.04) vs. RHP Carlos Zambrano (6-1, 2.03).
- Key matchup: Each team's lineup against the opposition's starting pitcher. Duke in his three previous starts was 2-0 and allowed five earned runs in 201/3 innings. Zambrano in his six previous starts was 5-0, working at least seven innings in five of them, and allowed only seven earned runs in 42 innings.
- Of note: Jason Bay lifetime against Zambrano is 12 for 34 with four doubles, five home runs and 16 RBIs.
The Pirates hadn't lost 10 consecutive games to the Cubs since Aug. 12, 1890-April 23, 1891.
"They're a good team," Russell said. "To beat them, you have to play good baseball. You have to pitch well. You have to limit the amount of mistakes you make. If you do that, you have a pretty good chance to beat them."
These Pirates, however, are acting as if that formula for success is written in Greek.
The day began badly for Gorzelanny and his teammates when Alfonso Soriano drove his first pitch into the left-field seats just inside the foul pole for his 47th career leadoff home run.
That aggressive approach set the tone for the Cubs, who swung at 10 of 11 first-pitch strikes from Gorzelanny.
"That was eye-opening," pitching coach Jeff Andrews said. "It seems to be the new thing in baseball now is for a team to try to extend the other team's starter and make him throw a lot of pitches."
The Cubs, though, didn't take many strikes. Gorzelanny followed Soriano's home run by walking Ryan Theriot on four pitches. After Derrek Lee flied out, Theriot stole second and continued to third when catcher Ronny Paulino's throw zipped into center field. Theriot scored on Aramis Ramirez's ground ball behind third base.
Geovany Soto followed that with a home run to left field on an 0-1 pitch. Soto would add a single in the eighth, making him 15 for 28 against the Pirates this season.
Soriano scorched the Pirates again in the second. With two aboard and first base open, Soriano lifted Gorzelanny's hanging 0-1 slider, which was supposed to bounce in the dirt at the plate, into the left-center field home run basket.
So much for Soriano's early season struggles. In his past seven games, he is 15 for 32 with five home runs and 12 RBIs.
Gorzelanny then settled, yielding just a home run to Mark DeRosa with one out in the sixth. That's why Russell permitted Gorzelanny to bat with one out in the fifth and a runner on first base.
"He was putting up zeroes," said Russell, who said before the game he wanted to give left-handed reliever Sean Burnett a game off. "And we had taxed our bullpen in St. Louis. You don't want to waste [pinch-hitters] trying to get back into the game [at that point]. But the main thing was, he was putting up zeroes."
So was Chicago right-hander Sean Gallagher, 22, who worked six innings, allowing four hits. He was rewarded with his first major-league victory.
The third and fourth hits Gallagher surrendered produced the Pirates' first run in the sixth. Nate McLouth doubled and scored on Xavier Nady's single, the 35th RBI for the right fielder.
The Pirates mustered some power of their own in the eighth against Bob Howry. Jason Bay lifted a home run into the right-field seats. Doug Mientkiewicz drove his first home run of the season into the right-field seats with Nady aboard.
All that did, though, was make the outcome closer.
Paul Meyer can be reached at email@example.com . First Published May 17, 2008 4:00 AM