Two of baseball’s best right-handers put winning streaks on the line Wednesday when Carlos Zambrano and the Chicago Cubs face Roy Oswalt and the Houston Astros to close out a three-game set at Minute Maid Park.
Zambrano looks to become the first 15-game winner in the majors and salvage the series finale for the Cubs (58-54), who have lost three straight and five of six but are one game behind struggling Milwaukee for the NL Central lead.
Since the start of 2003, the only pitcher in either league with more wins than Oswalt (11-6, 3.55 ERA) and Zambrano (14-7, 3.42) is Minnesota’s Johan Santana with 78. Oswalt is 76-41 in that span, Zambrano has gone 73-39 and both have posted a 3.18 ERA.
Oswalt, though, endured one of his worst outings of the season when he last faced the Cubs, allowing nine runs and 10 hits in 5 1-3 innings of a 9-3 loss on July 14. The seven-year veteran has won all three of his starts since that game, surrendering two earned runs over 19 innings with two walks and 19 strikeouts.
Zambrano has not displayed the same kind of control but has been just as successful recently. He’s 4-0 with a 0.89 ERA in his last five outings.
Pitching indoors will be a welcome change for Zambrano, who’s been bothered by cramping in his last two starts and was forced to leave his most recent one.
“I don’t like to drink too much water, and I have to start doing that,” said Zambrano, who also had a heat-related headache last month against San Francisco.
Besides being 9-2 with a 2.83 ERA in 12 road starts, Zambrano should be particularly happy to pitch in Houston. He’s thrown 21 consecutive scoreless innings at Minute Maid Park and is 3-0 with a 0.96 ERA in his last five outings there.
Zambrano has won four straight starts overall versus the Astros and is 5-0 with a 0.51 ERA in his last seven games against them. He’s 10-5 with a 2.29 ERA in 21 career appearances against Houston (50-63).
Oswalt has not had the same success versus the Cubs, going 10-10 with a 4.14 ERA and losing his last four starts against them.
Oswalt, though, is 7-1 with a 2.30 ERA in 14 home starts this season, going unbeaten in 10 outings in Houston since losing to Milwaukee on April 27.
It was a pitchers’ duel the last time they squared off, with Zambrano overcoming seven walks to go eight innings in a 3-0 victory on Aug. 14, 2006. Oswalt allowed two runs in seven innings.
Oswalt now looks to keep the clamps on a Cubs offense which has struggled in this series without Alfonso Soriano, totaling three runs and 11 hits. Chicago has struck out 13 times and gone 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position in each of the two games since Soriano suffered a torn right quadriceps that likely will keep him out through August.
It’s not as if the Cubs were hitting well before Soriano’s injury. They’ve been held to nine hits or fewer in five straight games, scoring more than three runs only once in that span. They have two homers in their last eight contests.
“It’s hard coming by runs right now,” Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. “Everybody’s just got to do their part. I don’t think anybody’s being asked to carry more of the load than they can. We just need a game where we swing the bats and score some runs and then go from there.”
Carlos Lee has been providing plenty of offense for the Astros, batting .414 (12-for-29) in seven games this month and driving in six runs over the last three. He is 13-for-38 (.342) with four homers against Zambrano.
Lee had one of the RBIs during Houston’s four-run sixth Tuesday in a 5-2 victory.
Craig Biggio drove in the go-ahead run in that inning with his 3,023rd hit, moving into a tie with Lou Brock for 22nd all-time and within 30 of Rod Carew for 21st. Biggio will retire at the end of this season.