The New York Mets own the NL’s best record and have been leading the Eastern Division for more than two months.
The Chicago Cubs have had a narrow lead atop the NL Central for all of two days—thanks to some help from the Mets.
These division leaders begin a three-game series Friday at Wrigley Field, and the Cubs hope to get a spark from staff ace Carlos Zambrano in the opener as he looks to become the majors’ first 15-game winner.
New York (61-47) pounded Milwaukee 12-4 on Thursday to win two of three at Miller Park. The Mets have a four-game lead over second-place Philadelphia in the NL East, and have not been out of the top spot since they were a half-game behind Atlanta on May 15.
Chicago (57-50) moved ahead of the Brewers into first place in the Central on Wednesday, and remained one percentage point ahead of them despite Thursday’s 10-6 loss to the Phillies.
The Mets won three of four over the Cubs at Shea Stadium May 14-17, but Chicago has been playing much better baseball lately, and Zambrano (14-7, 3.47 ERA) has been a big reason why.
Zambrano leads the majors with a 9-2 record, 1.41 ERA and .143 opponent batting average in 11 games since June 6. He has won all four of his starts since the All-Star break, allowing just two runs in 25 1-3 innings in those games, and was named the NL pitcher of the month for July on Thursday.
Zambrano struck out six in 7 1-3 innings of Sunday’s 6-0 win over Cincinnati, and he finished with more hits (three) than he allowed (two).
“I think this is the best stretch I’ve ever had,” he said. “I feel confident and comfortable. I’ve been hitting my spots and throwing more strikes. My arm slot feels good.”
The right-hander has been nearly unhittable at Wrigley Field since the break, yielding just five hits in 11 2-3 innings over two games. He’s 4-1 with a 0.78 ERA in his last five outings at home after starting the year 1-4 with a 7.91 ERA in his first six starts on Chicago’s North Side.
Zambrano was sharp in his only start of the year against New York, allowing one run and six hits in eight innings of a 10-1 win on May 15 at Shea. He has won his last three starts over the Mets, and is 3-1 with a 3.60 ERA in five games - four starts - lifetime against them.
Alfonso Soriano was 3-for-5 with a double on Thursday, and is batting .429 (12-for-28) with two home runs and seven runs in his last six games. Soriano is 5-for-12 with a homer and three doubles lifetime against Friday’s starter Orlando Hernandez (7-4, 3.02), who has also been solid since the break, going 3-0 with a 2.42 ERA in four starts.
Hernandez allowed one run, three hits and struck out eight in seven innings of a 3-1 win over Washington in the first game of a doubleheader on Saturday. The right-hander improved to 4-1 with a 2.93 ERA in his last seven starts.
“Not many guys can do what he does, throwing his breaking ball for strikes as consistently as he does,” Mets manager Willie Randolph said. “He never surprises me.”
Hernandez was roughed up in his only career start against the Cubs, yielding five runs and seven hits in just 1 2-3 innings of a 13-7 victory at Wrigley last July 16.
Mets third baseman David Wright had four hits Thursday, including his 19th homer of the season, and is batting .550 (11-for-20) with seven runs and five RBIs in his last six games. He’s hitting .429 (12-for-28) with two home runs and eight RBIs in his last eight games against the Cubs, but is just 1-for-9 lifetime against Zambrano.