PITTSBURGH -- Remember back in Spring Training when Derrek Lee and then-hitting coach Gerald Perry joked that the Cubs' first baseman couldn't even say "home runs?" The reason being, the Cubs didn't want Lee thinking about swinging for the fences. The times, the hitting coach and Lee's swing have changed since then.

On a drizzly Labor Day, Lee belted two homers off two pitches, connecting twice for the second time in three days, to back Ted Lilly and lead the Cubs to a 4-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

With Monday's win, the Cubs avoided falling to .500 for the first time since they finished the first half of the season 43-43. The Pirates, on the other hand, are now guaranteed their 17th straight losing season.

"Since I've been here [with the Cubs], we've been in the playoffs three times, and that's fun," said Chicago's Aramis Ramirez, who was in Pittsburgh for 5 1/2 of those 17 seasons. "When you're never in the race -- you're going to have years when you're going to struggle, everybody goes through that -- but 17 years in a row is a long time."

Lee, who hit a pair of homers Saturday in New York, smacked his 30th off the first pitch he saw from Daniel McCutchen (0-1) with two outs in the first, and connected again with two outs in the third, driving in Ryan Theriot, who had singled. And again, Lee launched the first pitch he saw from McCutchen for No. 31.

"Fastball and a changeup," McCutchen said of the two pitches. "Both of them weren't located where I wanted to pitch them. The first one, I was trying to get the fastball down and away. It's 0-0, and you're just wanting to throw a strike, but I ran a fastball back over the middle. The hitter that he is, down and middle is his swing path. That was a mistake there.

"A little better pitch the second time. He's a good hitter. A guy like that, he's the 'don't-let-beat-me-guy' in the lineup."

Lee admitted he's been in a good groove recently at the plate. Was he looking for something?

"You go up there ready from the first pitch on," he said. "When you get a pitch you like, you try to put a good swing on it."

It sounds so simple. But in Spring Training, Lee was trying to find a way to improve on his dismal 2008 second half, when he batted .266 with five homers. He has not come close to the 46 homers he hit in 2005.

"Actually, I kind of worked on the wrong things in Spring Training, and I think part of that got me off to a slow start," said Lee, who batted .189 this April. "I went back to what I was comfortable doing my whole career. I approached Gerald with the changes, and we worked on those in spring, but I never got comfortable with it. I finally said, 'Scrap it, and let's go back to what I'm used to doing.'"

He wouldn't specify the adjustments, saying they were minor. Whatever works.

This was his 22nd career multi-homer game, and Lee now is the eighth Cubs player to have three seasons of at least 30 homers, joining Sammy Sosa (11 seasons), Ernie Banks (seven), Billy Williams (five), Ron Santo (four), Hank Sauer (four), Hack Wilson (four) and Ramirez (three). The 31 are the most since 2005 for Lee.

The Cubs' first baseman is 5-for-10 with four homers and six RBIs in his last three games since the birth of his son, Dylan, on Thursday, and on pace to set a career high in RBIs. He has 96; his personal high is 107. Daughter Jada asks her dad to hit a homer every game, and did so before Saturday's game in New York.

"She already sent me a text -- she's pretty excited," Lee said of his good-luck charm.

Lilly (11-8) benefited. He served up two hits -- a solo homer to Andy LaRoche in the third and an RBI double to Brandon Moss in the fifth -- over six innings. The lefty struck out seven, and now has fanned 78 over his last 92 innings while walking 15.

"I was using my changeup a little bit more and I didn't pitch away as I would've liked to," Lilly said. "I tried to throw a sinker away to LaRoche that he hit that was pretty much middle."

Carlos Marmol picked up his sixth straight save since being named the closer on Aug. 18. Lilly, Marmol, John Grabow and Angel Guzman all shrugged off the light rain that kept the grounds crew busy at PNC Park.

"From a pitcher's standpoint, it didn't affect us a whole lot," Lilly said.

It didn't seem to affect Lee, who is trying to salvage the disappointing season.

"Everyone is looking for something to point at this season, and the bottom line is we just haven't played well," Lee said. "There's no particular reason. We had high expectations, and we haven't met them. It's not from lack of effort.

"It's been a season that's been a struggle. Like Lou [Piniella] told us today, just go out there this last month and play as hard as you can."