At last season’s All-Star break, Chicago was 35-51 and 12 1/2 games out of first place in the NL Central. The Cubs went on to finish with a 67-95 record, 30 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the division.
Chicago brought in Dusty Baker, who managed the San Francisco Giants to the World Series in 2002, and he has the Cubs in contention in the division race despite injuries and distractions.
Slugger Sammy Sosa missed three weeks earlier this season with a toe injury, then was suspended seven games for using a corked bat. Two key relievers, Dave Veres and Mark Guthrie, both spent time on the disabled list, along with rookie first baseman Hee Seop Choi.
Then on July 6, center fielder Corey Patterson suffered a season-ending injury when he tore the ACL in his left knee. Baker himself was the center of controversy a day later when he said that black and Latin players were better suited to play in the heat than white players.
Since his return from the suspension on June 18, Sosa is hitting .347 with 12 homers and 24 RBIs in 25 games.
“I believe we’re going to have a much better second half,” Sosa said. “That’s my belief. After all the things that have happened to us, I don’t think anything else can go bad.”
Florida was six games under .500 on May 11 when it fired Jeff Torborg and brought in 72-year-old Jack McKeon as his replacement. Since then, the Marlins have gone 33-24 to move into the NL wild-card race.
The emergence of rookie pitcher Dontrelle Willis has also boosted Florida, and the Marlins acquired reliever Ugueth Urbina from the Texas Rangers prior to the All-Star break to shore up their bullpen.
“He’s a winner and very intense, and he takes the ball any day, and any time,” Florida general manager Larry Beinfest said of Urbina. “We wanted to win now. We didn’t just want to strengthen the back end of the bullpen, we wanted to fortify it.”
STANDINGS: Cubs - 3rd place, 3 1/2 GB, NL Central. Marlins - 4th place, 13 1/2 GB, NL East.
CUBS PROBABLE STARTER: Wood (9-6, 3.19 ERA). The right-hander, winner of four of his last five starts, is 3-0 with a 2.40 ERA in his career against Florida. He threw a three-hitter with 12 strikeouts in a 5-1 win over the Marlins in his last outing July 9.
MARLINS PROBABLE STARTER: Mark Redman (7-4, 3.26 ERA). The left-hander won five of his first seven decisions, but has since struggled. Redman is 2-2 with a 5.00 ERA in his last four starts, and has allowed four homers during that span after giving up just two in his first 11 outings. He is making his first career appearance against the Cubs.
OFFENSIVE LEADERS: Cubs - Sosa, .312 avg., 18 HRs and 52 runs; Moises Alou, 56 RBIs; Tom Goodwin, 18 SBs. Marlins - Luis Castillo, .311 avg.; Mike Lowell, 28 HRs, 76 RBIs and 62 runs; Juan Pierre, 44 SBs.
SEASON SERIES: Cubs, 2-1.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Cubs - RHP Wood has a major league-leading 156 strikeouts and is ninth in the NL with a 3.19 ERA. … RF Sosa has 26 homers and 76 RBIs in 93 games against the Marlins. … LF Alou, a member of Florida’s 1997 championship team, is 2-for-12 against his former club this season. Marlins - CF Pierre’s 44 SBs are 20 more than the total of Los Angeles OF Dave Roberts, who is second in the NL. … 3B Lowell has three homers and eight RBIs in 10 games this month. … LHP Redman has a 2.98 ERA in eight starts at Pro Player this season.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Cubs - 23-22 on the road; Marlins - 25-19 at home.
INJURIES: Cubs - CF Patterson (knee), 15-day DL; RHP Scott Chiasson (elbow), 60-day DL; LHP Will Ohman (elbow), 60-day DL. Marlins - RHP Kevin Olsen (concussion), 15-day DL; RHP Tim Spooneybarger (arm), 15-day DL; RHP Toby Borland (appendicitis), 60-day DL; RHP A.J. Burnett (elbow), 60-day DL.