By JEFF BARTL
(AP) -- The Chicago Cubs figured the rebuilding project under Theo Epstein would take some time to yield positive results, but they probably didn't envision these types of struggles barely one quarter of the way through its first season.
Chicago looks to avoid losing 10 straight for the first time in more than 15 years as Ryan Dempster tries again for his first victory Friday night in the opener of a three-game set against the host Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Cubs (15-29) have the worst record in the NL after falling 5-1 to Houston on Wednesday, marking their ninth consecutive defeat.
Chicago, which hired Epstein from Boston in the offseason to run its front office and revamped much of the roster, hasn't lost 10 straight since dropping its first 14 games of the 1997 season.
"It's getting very tough," said bench coach Jamie Quirk, who filled in Wednesday for manager Dale Sveum as he attended his son's high school graduation. "This game is so mental because day in and day out, it keeps coming at you. Obviously, you wipe it away and show up the next day wanting to win, but losing is never fun."
Dempster (0-2, 2.28 ERA) expressed a similar feeling after allowing four runs in six innings of a 7-4 loss to the Chicago White Sox on Saturday - his second straight game giving up four runs after allowing two or fewer in each of his first five outings.
The Cubs are 1-6 in his starts, with Dempster making some dubious history along the way. No pitcher has had a better ERA through his first seven starts without a victory since the New York Yankees' Whitey Ford started 0-3 with a 2.03 ERA in 1966.
"A loss is a loss. I don't really care who is watching. I don't like losing anytime," Dempster said. "If there was one person in the stands or there was 40,000 people, to me it means the same thing and that's a loss. I don't take any one loss different than the others."
The right-hander hasn't fared very well against Pittsburgh recently, going 2-5 with a 5.93 ERA since the start of 2010.
The Pirates' offense, though, hasn't provided much of a challenge to opposing pitchers in 2012.
Pittsburgh (20-24) is last in the majors with 126 runs scored, and its .217 average ranks last in the NL. The Pirates have been held to one run or none 14 times after Wednesday's 3-1 loss to the New York Mets.
"You have to shake it off and get ready for Friday (and) try to win three weekend games against the Cubs," outfielder Andrew McCutchen told the team's official website.
At .338, McCutchen is the only Pittsburgh player batting above .275 and one of just three above .221.
Any success the Pirates have had mainly can be attributed to a pitching staff that ranks among the MLB leaders with a 3.33 ERA, and A.J. Burnett (2-2, 4.78) takes the hill Friday looking to deliver another solid outing.
Burnett's ERA is inflated because he allowed 12 runs in 2 2-3 innings at St. Louis on May 2, but he's posted a 2.45 ERA while the Pirates have won his three starts since. He gave up two runs in six innings in a 4-3 win Saturday at Detroit.
The right-hander has won his last four starts against the Cubs with a 3.60 ERA, but Chicago has won five of the last seven meetings overall as the NL Central rivals begin their 2012 season series.
Updated May 24, 2012