After a successful road trip, the Chicago Cubs enter their final homestand of the regular season with the best record in the NL Central.
They’ll try to build on their lead when they host the Cincinnati Reds in the opener of a three-game series on Monday.
The Cubs (78-72) return to Wrigley Field after winning five of seven games in Houston and St. Louis. The strong trip helped Chicago hold off second-place Milwaukee, which has won 10 of its last 15 to pull within one game of the division lead. The Cubs have 12 games remaining, while the Brewers have 14.
“We’re in pretty good shape,” said manager Lou Piniella. “We’re going home with two more wins than the team directly behind us.
“We did what we had to do on this road trip. Now it’s a 12-game season.”
Reserve outfielder Matt Murton hit a three-run home run as Chicago capped its trip with a 4-2 win over St. Louis on Sunday. The homer extended the Cubs’ streak to 10 straight games with at least one - their longest streak of the season. They have 16 homers in that stretch.
“It’s an exciting time of the year,” Murton told the Cubs’ official Web site. “The last couple years we weren’t in that position. It really locks you in as a player, and hopefully you come through more times than not.”
Chicago plays its next six games at home against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, who are a combined 30 games under .500. The Cubs, however, have lost seven of 12 meetings with the Reds (68-81) this year, including four of six at Wrigley Field. Those four losses have been by a combined five runs.
Cincinnati, however, has lost five of its last six road games, including back-to-back defeats at Milwaukee over the weekend. The Reds had 11 hits on Sunday - five more than the Brewers - but fell 5-2.
“They made their hits count and we didn’t,” Reds interim manager Pete Mackanin said.
The Reds will try to avoid their third straight loss with Bronson Arroyo (9-14, 4.31 ERA) on the mound. Arroyo is 0-2 in three starts against the Cubs this year, despite his 2.53 ERA in those games. Overall, he’s 4-5 with a 2.76 ERA in 13 career games - 11 starts - against them.
Arroyo held St. Louis to one run in six innings of a 5-1 victory on Wednesday - the right-hander’s fourth win in his last five decisions. He has a 14-6 career record in September.
“It’s the end of the season,” he said. “Maybe the other guys are getting a little tired. I always feel good down the stretch. It’s cooler. Obviously, you want to finish off strong. You want to feel like you’ve given your team consistent work.”
Chicago will hand the ball to Rich Hill (9-8, 3.91), who’s 5-2 against division opponents this year, including 1-0 with a 1.50 ERA in two starts against the Reds. In six career games against them, he’s 2-2 with a 4.30 ERA.
On Wednesday, the left-hander held Houston to one run and three hits while striking out seven in seven innings of a 3-2 win.
“I’m really proud of the way our young left-hander pitched,” Piniella said. “It was a pressure game for him to pitch in. And he responded as well as or better than you can expect.”