Though they also are in the NL wild card chase, the Cubs are mainly focused on beating out Houston in the NL Central. Seeking its first playoff berth since 1998 and first division crown since winning the NL East in 1989, Chicago is tied with the Astros for first place.
The Cubs are two games behind Florida for the wild card with six to play.
Following this series, Chicago finishes its season with three home games against Pittsburgh. The Astros are at home for their final six games, with two remaining against NL West-leading San Francisco and four against Milwaukee.
To make the playoffs, Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez feels his team might be able to afford only one loss in the season’s final week.
“I’ve never been this close (to the postseason) before,” said Ramirez, who played five-plus seasons with the Pirates before being traded to Chicago in July. “The Astros have been playing great this month and we have, too. We’ve got six games left, so we’ve got to win at least five to make the playoffs.”
That’s a significantly higher winning percentage than the Cubs had over the weekend in Pittsburgh, where they salvaged a split of their four-game series with a 4-1 win Sunday.
“We won two of four here and maybe, early in the season, we would take a split,” Sunday’s winner Mark Prior said. “But we wanted to win three of four if not four of four … I think we could have played better.”
Wood liked how the Cubs bounced back to win Sunday following consecutive losses to the Pirates, and feels confident going into this crucial week.
“We’re holding up fine,” he said. “Everybody’s looking forward to this.”
Cincinnati is looking forward to continuing its role of spoiler. The Reds took two of three from Philadelphia this weekend, including Sunday’s 4-3 victory.
“These guys should be proud of themselves to win two out of three in this environment,” Reds manager Dave Miley said.
STANDINGS: Cubs - 1st place (tied), NL Central. Reds - 5th place, 17 1/2 GB, NL Central.
CUBS PROBABLE STARTER: Wood (13-11, 3.31 ERA). Wood has pitched well in 14 career starts against the Reds, going 9-2 with a 2.50 ERA. He is 2-0 in four games this season against Cincinnati, allowing nine runs and striking out 29 in 28 innings.
REDS PROBABLE STARTER: Seth Etherton (2-4, 6.90 ERA). Etherton left his start Wednesday at Pittsburgh after pitching only one inning when he felt stiffness and soreness in his right arm. The right-hander has been hit hard lately, giving up 11 runs over his last 7 2-3 innings. Etherton avoided taking a loss despite struggling in his only start against the Cubs, allowing four runs and seven hits in just two innings of a 7-6 loss Sept. 12.
OFFENSIVE LEADERS: Cubs - Mark Grudzielanek, .314 avg.; Sammy Sosa, 36 HRs and 93 runs; Ramirez, 102 RBIs; Kenny Lofton, 30 SBs. Reds - Sean Casey, .291 avg. and 75 RBIs; Adam Dunn, 27 HRs and 70 runs; Ryan Freel, 9 SBs.
SEASON SERIES: Cubs, 8-6.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Cubs - Chicago has won seven of 10 and is 15-6 in September. … Cubs pitchers have 1,352 strikeouts, breaking their own major league record of 1,344 set two years ago. … RF Sosa is in a 4-for-28 slump (.143). Reds - Cincinnati has used a different lineup in 32 straight games. … 1B Casey is 4-for-8 this season against RHP Wood. … RHP Etherton will be making just his third home start this season. He is 0-2 with a 7.84 ERA at Great American Ball Park.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Cubs - 42-36 on the road; Reds - 33-42 at home.
INJURIES: Cubs - OF Corey Patterson (knee), 60-day DL; RHP Scott Chiasson (elbow), 60-day DL; LHP Will Ohman (elbow), 60-day DL. Reds - SS Barry Larkin (finger), 15-day DL; OF Dunn (thumb), 15-day DL; RHP Jose Acevedo (ankle), 15-day DL; RHP Ryan Dempster (elbow), 15-day DL; RHP Jimmy Haynes (back), 60-day DL; RHP Luke Prokopec (shoulder), 60-day DL; LHP Mark Watson (kidney), 60-day DL; 3B Brandon Larson (shoulder), 60-day DL; OF Ken Griffey Jr. (ankle), 60-day DL; OF Austin Kearns (shoulder), 60-day DL; OF Reggie Taylor (shoulder), 60-day DL.