The Chicago Cubs have quickly turned around a sluggish start to 2008.
The Cubs (6-3) opened the season winning only once in four games. But they have reeled off five straight victories, including a three-game sweep of Pittsburgh. Chicago completed its first sweep of 2008 with a 7-3 win over the Pirates on Thursday after needing 27 total innings to record the first two victories.
The Cubs have also been better at the plate in the five wins, hitting .290 while scoring 35 runs after batting just .220 and plating 14 runs in the first four contests.
Zambrano (1-0, 1.32 ERA) is looking to extend the team’s winning streak to six games for the first time since a seven-game surge from June 22-29 - Chicago’s longest run of 2007.
The right-hander, though, will take the mound a day earlier than expected after Friday’s scheduled starter, Jason Marquis, was scratched because of the flu. Ted Lilly will start Saturday, and the Cubs could turn to either Marquis or Sean Marshall in Sunday’s series finale.
Zambrano is coming off his second strong outing of the season, but this one was cramp-free. The Cubs’ ace allowed two runs and seven hits with seven strikeouts in seven innings of a 3-2 win over Houston on Sunday. His season debut on March 31 was cut short after 5 2-3 innings due to cramping in his forearm, which also bothered him last season.
Zambrano, who has been placed on a strict hydration and potassium regimen, hopes those issues are behind him and appears to be focused on his performance.
“I am throwing the ball where I want and using my pitches,” Zambrano told the team’s official Web site.”The key is to pound the ball in the zone and go out and throw strikes. Like my pitching coach told me in spring training, I need to get the first-pitch strike and that will be the key for me all year long.”
Zambrano is 3-0 with a 1.13 ERA in his last three starts against the Phillies (4-6), but he hasn’t faced them since Aug. 24, 2006. His last start at Philadelphia was a victory on Aug. 2, 2005.
Geovany Soto, who spent most of the last three seasons in the minors, was a big part of the Cubs’ sweep of the Pirates, going 8-for-17 (.471) with a home run and four RBIs. He went 4-for-5 on Thursday with a homer, two doubles and two RBIs.
The Cubs went 3-4 against the Phillies last season, and are 4-8 at Citizens Bank Park since it opened in 2004.
The Phillies hope Jimmy Rollins will be able to start after he was held out of the lineup for a second consecutive game due to an ankle injury. Without the reigning NL MVP, Philadelphia committed four errors en route to an 8-2 loss at New York on Wednesday before falling 4-3 in 11 innings on Thursday.
“Lateral movement. It’s tender,” Rollins said. “Hopefully, (Friday) night. We’ll see.”
Rollins, though, struck out as a pinch-hitter Thursday. The shortstop is 3-for-17 (.176) against Zambrano.
If Rollins can’t start, Eric Bruntlett is likely to fill in again after going 1-for-10 in the two losses to the Mets.
The Phillies hope Brett Myers (0-1, 6.30) can rebound from another shaky outing.
The right-hander allowed four runs and eight hits - including two homers - in five innings of an 8-2 loss at Cincinnati on Sunday.
He’s 5-2 with a 2.56 ERA in seven career starts against the Cubs. However, his last start against them came on Sept. 20, 2006, when he struck out 12 and threw a six-hitter in a 6-2 victory.
Myers has made four relief appearances versus Chicago since that start, going 0-1 with a 2.08 ERA.