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Loss to Cubs dims Pirates chances of winning NL Central

| Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, 5:36 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano talks with pitching coach Ray Searage while laboring through the sixth inning against the Cubs Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates left fielder Starling Marte scores past Cubs catcher J.C. Boscan on a bases loaded walk during the third inning Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano delivers to the plate during the first inning against the Cubs Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Cubs' Darwin Barney scores past Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez during the first inning Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates left fielder Staling Marte steals second base next to the Cubs' Starlin Castro during the first inning Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Cubs' Anthony Rizzo breaks up a double play under Pirates second baseman Neil Walker during the first inning Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano delivers to the plate during the fifth inning against the Cubs on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano hangs his head after giving up a three-run homer to the Cubs' Darnell McDonald during the sixth inning Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Cubs' Donnie Murphy steals second base under the Pirates' Neil Walker during the sixth inning Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Cubs' Darnell McDonald (right) celebrates his three-run home run in front of Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez during the sixth inning Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Pirates' Jose Tabata salutes toward the dugout next to Cubds third baseman Donnie Murphy during the ninth inning Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Pirates' Marlon Byrd walks from the plate after striking out with a runner at third during the ninth inning against the Cubs Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano labors through the sixth inning against the Cubs Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker makes a running catch in right field against the Cubs Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez catches a popup in foul territory against the Cubs on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Pirates' Starling Marte is called out on strikes to end the game against the Cubs Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

CHICAGO — By absorbing a tough loss Wednesday against the Chicago Cubs, the Pirates moved to the brink of elimination in the NL Central title chase and made their path toward getting home-field advantage in the wild-card game more difficult.

The Cubs won 4-2 on a three-run homer by journeyman outfielder Darnell McDonald.

The St. Louis Cardinals reduced their magic number to one by beating the Washington Nationals, 4-1.

The Cincinnati Reds were eliminated from the division title hunt Wednesday after their 1-0 loss to the New York Mets.

If the Cardinals win the division, the winner of the Pirates-Reds series this weekend in Cincinnati will determine which club gets home-field advantage in the NL wild-card game. The wild-card game will be played at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

“We've embraced (challenges) all year long,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “That's the way our season has played out. We'll have a day off (Thursday) in Cincinnati and be ready to hit the gas pedal again Friday.”

McDonald has played for eight organizations since he was drafted by Baltimore in 1997. He signed a minor league contract with the Cubs last winter and was recalled from Triple-A on Aug. 10.

The game-winning home run was McDonald's third hit of the game off Pirates left-hander Francisco Liriano. During his seven seasons in the majors, McDonald is 6 for 11 with two homers, two doubles and five RBI against Liriano.

“I haven't faced him much,” Liriano said. “Today he was seeing the ball great and swung the bat great. In that last at-bat, I made a mistake.”

Liriano (16-8) allowed four runs, eight hits and one walk. He has lost three of his past five decisions.

The Pirates haven't revealed their postseason starting rotation. Liriano would line up to be the starter in the wild-card game.

“There's never a time I don't like Frank on the mound,” Hurdle said.

Donnie Murphy started the sixth inning with a single, then stole second base. Junior Lake walked. McDonald smacked a 2-1 fastball into the left field bleachers.

It was McDonald's first home run in the majors since April 30, 2012, when he was with the Boston Red Sox.

“I tried to go in, and it stayed right down the middle,” Liriano said.

Both teams wasted excellent scoring chances. The Pirates went 1 for 13 with runners in scoring position.

“If we make three good outs with runners on third base with less than two outs, it's a 4-4 game going into the ninth,” Hurdle said. “That's been one of the challenges throughout the season. It's tough to continue to pitch without a safety net.”

In the fourth, Pedro Alvarez wound up at third base when Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro failed to catch a shoulder-high line drive. It was scored a three-base error.

Tony Sanchez popped out and Clint Barmes lined out to third baseman Murphy, who dived to the bag to double off Alvarez.

Justin Morneau doubled to begin the sixth and was at third base with one out. Alvarez grounded out weakly to first base, and Sanchez struck out.

McDonald led off the second and fourth innings with doubles, but couldn't score either time. The Cubs also came up empty in the third after putting runners on first and second with one out.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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