MLB

Pirates-Cubs preview

CHICAGO -- Hometown fans get their first extended look at rookie outfielder Albert Almora Jr. when the Chicago Cubs return to Wrigley Field to open a six-game homestand Friday against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But how long Almora remains in Chicago depends on how right fielder Jorge Soler bounces back from a strained left hamstring when he comes off the disabled list later this month.

There's no question that Almora, 22, has already made an impact in his first big league stint.

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Since being called up by the Cubs from Triple-A Iowa on June 7, Almora has gone 6-for-17 with three doubles, three RBIs and four runs in eight games.

In Wednesday's 5-4, 12-inning loss at Washington, Almora went 2-for-5 with a double and a run scored in his first career multi-hit game.

But Soler's return -- which could come as soon as the middle of next week -- could limit Almora's playing time and he might be better off returning to Triple-A Iowa where he'll play regularly.

"You see a guy like Albert, you want to make sure he's given some playing time," Cubs manager Joe Maddon told reporters this week. "You don't want him to sit. ... Otherwise he's better served not being here."

Almora has made a rapid climb through the ranks since the Cubs made him the No. 6 overall in the 2012 draft. In 54 games this season at Iowa, he batted .318 with three homers, 12 doubles and 30 RBIs.

Coming off two losses in three games against the National League East-leading Nationals, the Cubs have a three-game weekend series against the Pirates followed by three with the Cardinals.

Chicago is arguably in the middle of their most challenging stretch of the season while the Pirates quickly need to make up some ground to stay relevant.

Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta (10-1, 1.86 ERA) takes the mound against Pirates left-hander Francisco Liriano (4-6, 4.92 ERA).

Arrieta, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, has been superb through 13 starts including a no-hitter in April and two wins over the Pirates in May.

Liriano, meanwhile, has had a hard-luck run since May 13 when the Cubs knocked him for eight runs on nine hits in a 9-4 Pirates loss at Wrigley Field. Liriano has five losses in his last six starts, including three straight.

The 32-year-old left-hander had seven days rest between starts before facing the Cardinals on Saturday. He told reporters that he felt better despite allowing four runs (one earned) on four hits while striking out eight in Pittsburgh's 5-1 loss to St. Louis.

"Everything was more at the plate," Liriano told reporters. "Not way too high, way too low. ... I feel like I threw the ball better today than the last couple times."

Pittsburgh and St. Louis are already a fair distance behind Chicago.

The Cubs could conceivably head into the season's next benchmark -- the Fourth of July -- with double-digit game leads on both.

The Cubs are 9 1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals and 11 1/2 in front of the Pirates prior to Pittsburgh's series-ending game at the Mets on Thursday.