The Chicago Cubs have the luxury of playing their final nine regular-season games against three of the worst teams in the National League. Judging by their play versus those clubs this year, they probably don’t consider themselves very fortunate.
The Cubs look to extend their lead in the NL Central on Friday when they open a three-game series against the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field.
After completing a stretch of 24 games in 23 days on Wednesday with a 3-2 victory over Cincinnati, the Cubs enjoyed a rare day off Thursday. Although they were idle, their lead in the Central was pushed to 1 1/2 games over the Brewers, who lost 3-1 at Atlanta.
Chicago (80-73) clearly has the easier remaining schedule with three home games against Pittsburgh and three road contests each versus last-place Florida and Cincinnati. Milwaukee, meanwhile, has three games left at Atlanta before closing the season with three home games against St. Louis and four with West-leading San Diego.
While the Cubs have another day off on Monday, the Brewers play straight through to the end of the season.
“You’ve got to view off days as an advantage this late in the season,” infielder Mark DeRosa told the Cubs’ official Web site. “I know guys are tired, and the bottom line is you’re getting by on adrenaline now, and the fact that we are in the division series race. So off days are very much appreciated.”
Taking the Pirates, Marlins and Reds lightly shouldn’t be an option for the Cubs, who are 12-18 against those teams this year, including 5-7 versus Pittsburgh.
“We’re a good ball team, and we’re ahead in the division, and people are going to come out and try and play us hard,” Cubs first baseman Daryle Ward said. “For a team like the Pirates, it’s all about pride for them. You just want to know that you can beat the first-place team. So for them, it’s a lot of fun to come and try and disrupt the plans that we have of winning the division.”
The Cubs have won seven of their last nine games, and are an NL-best 58-42 since June 3.
Pittsburgh (66-87) was swept in four straight at San Diego, extending its losing streak to six, one shy of its season high.
The Pirates are trying to avoid finishing last in the Central for the second time in three seasons. They are one game behind fifth-place Houston.
Jason Marquis (12-8, 4.07 ERA) seeks his third straight win at Wrigley Field. The right-hander is 8-3 with a 4.01 ERA in 16 home starts this season, including 1-0 with a 2.63 ERA in two starts there this month. Marquis beat St. Louis—his former team—for the third time this year on Sunday, holding them to one run and five hits in 6 1-3 innings of a 4-2 victory.
Marquis is 2-1 with a 2.91 ERA in three starts this season against the Pirates. He threw a three-hit shutout against them on May 9 at home, but allowed six runs over 4 2-3 innings on July 6 in an 8-4 loss at PNC Park.
Paul Maholm (10-15, 4.76) looks to rebound from the worst start of his career. The left-hander had a personal three-game winning streak snapped Sunday in a 15-3 loss at Houston in his first start back after missing three weeks with tightness in his lower back. He was tagged 10 runs and 11 hits in 2 2-3 innings.
The poor outing came after Maholm went 3-1 with a 3.60 ERA in five starts in August.
Maholm is 4-0 with a 4.94 ERA in five career starts against the Cubs, beating them twice in two tries this season.
Chicago is 16-22 when facing a left-handed starter this year, and Pittsburgh is slated to start three southpaws in this series.