The surging Chicago Cubs have posted the best record in the majors since late June to pull back into the NL Central race. To continue their run in hopes of making their first playoff appearance in four years, they’ll need to overcome the absence of their top offensive threat.
Soriano, who leads the team with 18 home runs, 132 hits and 74 runs, strained his right quadriceps trying to advance from first to third on a single in the third inning of Sunday’s 8-3 loss to the New York Mets. Cubs manager Lou Piniella said Soriano will be sidelined at least two weeks and up to a month.
“It’s going to be a tough loss. I don’t know what we’ll do,” Piniella said. “Losing Soriano is the toughest thing about this homestand.”
Soriano, who signed an eight-year, $136 million free agent deal to join the Cubs, also missed five games in April with a strained left hamstring.
The Cubs are 26-13 since June 22, but missed an opportunity to tie sputtering Milwaukee for the division lead. Chicago, though, got some good news as oft-injured Kerry Wood made his first major league appearance since June 6, 2006.
The 1998 NL Rookie of the Year, who pitched only four games last year because of shoulder problems, allowed one hit in a scoreless seventh inning and could be an asset coming out of the bullpen.
But the Cubs also could have a tough time rebounding as they face one of the majors’ toughest pitchers at home. Houston’s Wandy Rodriguez (7-10, 4.72 ERA) ranks second with a 1.76 home ERA - only San Diego’s Chris Young, the major league ERA leader, has a lower mark at home at 0.73.
The Astros (48-63) have won eight of Rodriguez’s 10 home starts, including four straight since June 15. The left-hander is 4-0 with a 0.59 ERA in that span.
“I don’t know, maybe he’s more comfortable here, maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe it’ll all come out in the wash in the end,” Houston catcher Brad Ausmus told the Astros’ official Web site.
The difference was noticeable Wednesday, when Rodriguez gave up a season-high eight earned runs in a 12-3 loss to Atlanta, raising his road ERA to 8.16.
Rodriguez also has struggled in six career starts against the Cubs, going 2-4 with a 6.09 ERA. He’s 0-7 in nine starts against NL Central foes this year, and will face a team that has won four straight games against Houston after losing the first two meetings.
The Cubs, who also won their last four games in Houston last year, are visiting Minute Maid Park for the first time in 2007. Derrek Lee is 6-for-9 with two doubles and two home runs against Rodriguez, while outfielder Matt Murton is 4-for-11 with two homers lifetime against him.
The Astros have lost five of seven games, including consecutive 6-5 defeats to Florida over the weekend. On Sunday, Carlos Lee’s three-run home run in the eighth helped Houston pull within a run, but the Astros lost for the 13th time in their last 18 road games.
“We got back close,” Astros manager Phil Garner said. “That’s enough of that baloney, though. We’ve gotten close a lot of times.”
The Astros have won four of their last six at Minute Maid Park, and will face Chicago’s Rich Hill (6-6, 3.67), who hasn’t gotten a decision in three starts since a win over San Francisco July 16.
The left-hander gave up four runs - three earned - in 4 2-3 innings of the Cubs’ 5-4 victory over Philadelphia on Wednesday. Hill, who is starting against the Astros for the first time, hasn’t allowed a run in two career relief appearances against them.