The Chicago Cubs have a relatively comfortable lead in the NL Central as they head into the final week of the regular season. Given their notorious history, though, the Cubs are trying not to get too far ahead of themselves.
On Tuesday, Chicago begins a three-game series against the Florida Marlins, the franchise responsible for ending its last playoff run in 2003.
The Cubs (83-73) have won 10 of 12 games and four straight, including a three-game weekend sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Second-place Milwaukee beat the St. Louis Cardinals 13-5 on Monday to move within three games of Chicago for the division lead with six games to play.
“Nothing has been clinched yet,” said Cubs second baseman Mark DeRosa. “Milwaukee, I have a lot of respect for them. They’ve played hard all year and we know they’re not going to go down easy.”
History says the Cubs have good reason to be cautious. They had a 9 1/2 game lead in mid-August of 1969, but ended up missing the playoffs. Three years ago, they led the wild card by 1 1/2 games, but lost three of four at home in the final week and failed to qualify for postseason play.
Chicago plays its final six games, including a season-ending series against the Cincinnati Reds, on the road. However, at 39-36 the Cubs are the only NL Central team with a winning record away from home.
“The road scares me,” Chicago outfielder and former Marlin Cliff Floyd told the Cubs’ official Web site. “You’re playing teams that can hit in their ballpark, in their environment. They’re getting home cooked meals, they’re relaxing in their stadium, and it kind of scares me.
“I know the Marlins team, and … they have some good players who I know would love to spoil it for us.”
Chicago was swept at home by the Marlins (66-90) in April, and four years ago in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series against Florida, the Cubs were five outs away from the World Series when a fan interfered with a ball, leading to an eight-run rally for the Marlins. Florida won that game as well as Game 7 en route to a World Series championship.
Ted Lilly (15-7, 3.78 ERA) will take the mound for Chicago in Tuesday’s series opener. Lilly, who has already set a new career high with 200 innings pitched, is trying a third time to set a personal best with win No. 16. Since matching his career high in victories on Sept. 10 against the Cardinals, Lilly has not received a decision in either of his last two starts, although the Cubs won both.
The left-hander pitched seven innings Wednesday against the Reds, allowing two runs and five hits while striking out eight in Chicago’s 3-2 victory.
Lilly is 0-3 with a 5.16 ERA in four career starts against the Marlins.
Florida starter Dontrelle Willis (9-15, 5.32) is trying to avoid his first major league season with fewer than 10 wins. The five-year veteran has struggled particularly badly at home this year, going 3-9 with a 5.53 ERA in 17 starts.
Willis allowed three runs and five hits in six innings on Thursday against the Mets in a contest the Marlins went on to win 8-7 in 10 innings.
The left-hander is 3-3 with a 4.60 ERA in eight career starts against the Cubs.
Florida suffered a three-game sweep to the New York Mets over the weekend, and has dropped seven of its last eight games overall.