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The Target: Cubs vs. Pirates

Jake Arrieta helped the Cubs earn a sweep last week in Pittsburgh. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

If we learned anything the last time these teams squared off — a three-game Cubs sweep May 2-4 at PNC Park — it’s that the Pirates are, essentially, shooting for second place in the N.L. Central and another wild-card spot.

Essentially.

Or is that merely our over-the-top Cubs confidence in the Cubs talking?

Hey, things might look a lot different (extra-large “if” alert) if the Pirates return the favor by breaking out the broomsticks at Wrigley. And, after the Padres won both ends of a Wrigley day-night doubleheader on Wednesday, we must acknowledge that such a turn of events is possible.

Sort of.

THE MATCHUPS

Friday: Jason Hammel (4-0, 1.85) vs. Francisco Liriano (3-1, 3.60), 1:20 p.m., WGN.

Saturday: Jake Arrieta (6-0, 1.13) vs. Jeff Locke (1-2, 4.68), 1:20 p.m., Ch. 7.

Sunday: Jon Lester (4-1, 1.96) vs. Gerrit Cole (3-3, 3.78), 7:05 p.m., CSN.

Lefty Liriano has won 38 games since joining the Pirates in 2013 and has been particularly hard on Anthony Rizzo. Locke, another lefty, is coming off three straight quality starts, though the Cubs pounded him in 2015. Cole is Cole — a stud, though maybe the Cubs have his number.

The visitors aren’t sending pushovers to the mound, but do you see what they have to deal with in this series? A trio of Cubs starters who are, combined, 14-1 with a preposterous ERA of 1.62.

Advantage, you-know-who.

THE OPPONENT

It has been an overall scuffle for the Pirates’ pitching staff all season. Pittsburgh is 10th in the National League in ERA and has given up a lot of home runs and far too many walks.

The Pirates lead the N.L. in batting average, though, and are second to the Cubs in on-base percentage. Left fielder Starling Marte is one of the hottest hitters in the game. Second baseman Josh Harrison already has 12 RBIs in May. Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen is heating up, too.

ON/OFF TARGET

On: Kris Bryant. He did what he could in Wednesday night’s 1-0 loss to the Padres, reaching base twice. Bryant has hit safely in 15 of his last 17 games.

Off: Everybody else, kind of. The Cubs struck out 14 times in that 1-0 pile of frustration. Bryant, a guy who knows a thing or two about whiffing, didn’t strike out in any of his four at-bats.

On: Jason Heyward, kind of. He’s 5-for-17 in his last four games. It’s a start.

Off: Ben Zobrist. His 19-game on-base streak ended on Wednesday, when he had the unmitigated gall to strike out for the first time since May 3.

On: a losing streak. Yes, the Cubs are on one for the first time this season. Probably not for long.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com