After steadily gaining ground in the standings over the past five weeks, the Chicago Cubs have finally climbed into first place in the NL Central.
The Cubs now look to avoid a letdown when they conclude their four-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field.
Chicago (57-49) was 8 1/2 games out of first place in the division on June 23, but Wednesday’s 5-4 victory over the Phillies coupled with Milwaukee’s 8-5 loss to the New York Mets moved the Cubs one percentage point ahead of the Brewers. This is the latest Chicago has had a division lead since it won the Central in 2003.
“You can’t make too much out of it on the first of August,” Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. “We’ve got a lot of baseball to play. We can’t get caught up in it.”
The Cubs are a major league-best 35-18 since June 3, and have won 17 of their last 24 at Wrigley.
Sean Marshall (5-4, 3.10 ERA) looks to give the Cubs another solid outing on Thursday after finally breaking out of his winless funk his last time out.
Marshall allowed one run and six hits in six innings of an 8-1 win over Cincinnati on Tuesday for his first victory since June 24. Although he went 0-1 in his previous three starts, the left-hander pitched well, yielding two runs or less in each of those games.
“I personally want to build on what I’ve been doing this year,” Marshall told the team’s official Web site, “and hopefully the team does the same thing.”
Marshall, however, had one of the worst starts of his brief career against the Phillies last season as a rookie. He was tagged for six runs and five hits in just 3 1-3 innings of an 11-6 loss on Sept. 18.
Philadelphia (56-51) has dropped two in a row after winning nine of its previous 10.
The third-place Phillies trail the NL East-leading Mets by four games, and are two games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the wild-card race.
Reigning NL MVP Ryan Howard went 1-for-5 with a run-scoring double on Wednesday, but also struck out four times. He has nine strikeouts in 14 at-bats in this series.
Kyle Lohse (6-12, 4.58) is scheduled to make his first start for his new team when he takes the mound Thursday.
The Phillies acquired the right-hander from Cincinnati at the trade deadline to bolster a starting rotation that has been ravaged by injuries.
Lohse should benefit from joining the team that has scored the most runs in the NL (582), as he received the league’s fourth-lowest run support average while with the Reds (3.69).
“I’m a little excited, happy to be going to a team in the race,” Lohse said.
Although he was hurt by a lack of support, Lohse has also been very inconsistent. He is 4-5 in his last nine starts, posting a 1.20 ERA in the wins but an 8.07 ERA in the losses.
In his final start with the Reds, Lohse allowed two runs and five hits in 5 2-3 innings of a 7-3 victory over Milwaukee on July 25.
Lohse has had his most trouble on the road, going 2-9 with a 6.42 ERA in 12 starts. He has dropped his last four road starts, allowing 26 runs in 22 innings in those games, but had one of his best outings of the season at Wrigley in April.
Lohse gave up a season-low four hits and struck out a season-high 12 in eight innings of a 1-0 win over the Cubs on April 15. He allowed two runs and 10 hits in 6 1-3 innings, but did not receive a decision in the Reds’ 5-2 win over Chicago on April 5 in his season debut.