Ryan Howard and the Philadelphia Phillies look to continue to gain ground in the NL wild-card race on Monday night when they begin a three-game series against the NL-worst Chicago Cubs at Citizens Bank Park.
The Phillies (77-72) are one game behind the wild card-leading Los Angeles Dodgers, who trail first-place San Diego by one-half game for the NL West lead. The Padres and Dodgers conclude a four-game series Monday at Dodger Stadium.
Regardless of the outcome of that game, Philadelphia will move closer to the NL wild-card lead with a victory over Chicago (61-89).
If the Padres win, the Phillies would move into a tie with the Dodgers. If the Dodgers win, the Phillies would pull within one-half game of the Padres for the spot.
“We’re in a lot better position than we were last year and I think everyone knows what it will take to make it,” Howard said. “Everyone in the locker room is confident.”
Howard added to his major league-leading total with his 57th homer on Sunday as Philadelphia completed a three-game sweep at Houston with a 6-4 victory. It came one day after hit a drive to left that was incorrectly ruled a double by umpire Larry Poncino.
“I wasn’t worried today. You can sit there and worry about it or just go out and play,” Howard said. “But I’m glad it went out.”
Howard was 14-for-32 with four homers and a .587 on-base percentage on Philadelphia’s 10-game road trip.
The trip wasn’t as good for second baseman Chase Utley, who went 10-for-44 with 13 strikeouts and was 2-for-13 over the weekend.
“I feel fine,” said Utley, who had a 35-game hitting streak earlier in the season. “I imagine everybody is a little worn down in September.”
The Phillies have won 18 of their last 25 meetings with the Cubs and haven’t lost a home series to them since dropping two of three from April 6-8, 2001. Philadelphia won three of four at Wrigley Field from Aug. 21-24.
“Teams that are out of the race, you have to watch them,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. “Especially the Cubs, because they have some batters who are free swingers.”
Starter Jon Lieber (8-9, 4.87 ERA) looks to continue another solid September when he takes the mound for Philadelphia. Lieber is 2-0 with a 3.48 ERA in three starts this month and 21-12 with a 3.88 ERA in September in his career—his best record and lowest ERA for any month.
Lieber is 11-1 with a 2.65 ERA in his last 15 starts in September.
The veteran right-hander is 4-0 with a 3.10 ERA over his last seven starts overall and 3-0 with a 2.11 ERA in his last three outings against the Cubs.
Lieber won’t have to face Cubs slugger Derrek Lee. Lee announced Sunday he was taking a leave of absence to care for his 3-year-old daughter Jada, who is suffering from an undisclosed illness that has affected her eyesight.
Chicago responded to Lee’s news with an 11-3 victory over Cincinnati on Sunday, the team’s fifth win in seven games.
“It looked like the guys were inspired,” manager Dusty Baker said. “Derrek spoke to the team before the game and he told the guys to go out and play ball, play hard and do what you’ve got to do.”
Cubs rookie starter Sean Marshall (5-9, 5.34) is 0-2 with a 7.54 ERA in his last five starts. He’s failed to last past the fourth inning in his last two outings, after going 3 2-3 innings and allowing seven runs in a 9-8, 11-inning victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday.
The 24-year-old left-hander has never faced Philadelphia.