Despite being swept by one of the worst teams in the majors in their latest series, the stumbling Chicago Cubs actually moved closer to their first division title in four years.
The first-place Cubs try to break out of their funk and clinch the NL Central on Friday when they open a three-game series against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.
Chicago (83-76) entered its three-game series against Florida winning 10 of 12, but suffered its first three-game sweep since in Houston Aug. 6-8.
The Cubs still have a two-game lead over second-place Milwaukee, though, after the Brewers lost to San Diego 9-5 on Thursday. Chicago’s magic number to clinch the division is just two with three games remaining. Milwaukee has lost back-to-back games, and a Cubs win combined with a Brewers loss to the Padres on Friday can give Chicago its first NL Central title since 2003.
“We’re still in the driver’s seat,” Chicago manager Lou Piniella said. “We’ve just got to start winning some games.”
The Cubs lost to the Marlins 6-4 on Thursday, and were just 4-for-20 with runners in scoring position in their three games at Dolphin Stadium.
Alfonso Soriano was 3-for-13 in the Marlins series with six strikeouts, and is batting only .194 (6-for-31) with four doubles and 10 strikeouts lifetime against Friday’s starter Bronson Arroyo (9-14, 4.22 ERA).
Derrek Lee was 3-for-12 with a solo homer in the series, and is batting .236 (13-for-55) with three homers and 11 RBIs in 15 games against Cincinnati this year. Lee is 4-for-19 (.211) with a homer in his career against Arroyo.
The Cubs are 7-8 against the Reds, and have split their six games at Great American Ball Park.
Carlos Zambrano (17-13, 4.08) looks to help the Cubs inch closer to the division title when he takes the ball in Friday’s opener.
“We’ve got the right guy on the mound,” closer Ryan Dempster said. “Believe it or not, as bad as this was, we’re still confident in ourselves.”
Zambrano allowed just three hits in six innings of Sunday’s 8-0 win over Pittsburgh, but was forced to leave with cramping in his forearm and legs while warming up for the top of the seventh. The burly right-hander also had to leave a game against the Mets on Aug. 3 after five innings because of heat-related cramping and vowed to drink more water.
With the victory, Zambrano is 3-1 with a 2.13 ERA in his last four starts after posting a 9.42 ERA in losing his previous five.
Zambrano has pitched much better on the road than at home this year, going 11-4 with a 3.26 ERA in 16 starts away from Wrigley Field. He hasn’t had much luck against the Cincinnati this season, though. The Cubs staff ace is 1-4 with a 6.59 ERA in five starts against the Reds, and is 9-9 with a 3.55 ERA in 26 games—22 starts—lifetime against them.
Cincinnati (71-88) is coming off a 4-3 loss to Houston on Thursday, its fifth straight defeat. The Reds have not lost six in a row since May 22-27.
They are closing out the season without two of their top power hitters. Adam Dunn, who has 40 homers, had season-ending surgery on his right knee, while Ken Griffey Jr., who hit 30 home runs, is sidelined with a groin injury.
Arroyo has won his last two decisions, and is 4-1 with a 3.00 ERA in his last eight starts.
The right-hander scattered five hits and five walks in seven innings of a 2-0 win over San Francisco on Saturday, but was not a factor in the decision.
While Arroyo has been pitching well lately, he has struggled against Chicago this season.
Arroyo, in his second season with the Reds, went 4-0 with a 1.01 ERA in five starts against the Cubs in 2006, but is 0-2 with a 3.38 ERA in four starts this season.