For a team with postseason aspirations, the Chicago Cubs have not started the second half of the season in postseason form.
The NL Central-leading Cubs look to avoid getting swept by the Houston Astros when the teams wrap up their three-game series on Sunday.
Chicago (57-40) entered the All-Star break with a 4 1/2-game lead atop the Central, but has already lost 2 1/2 games of that advantage since the second half began.
The Cubs lost to the Astros 4-1 on Saturday, allowing second-place St. Louis to pull within two games and third-place Milwaukee to move to three back.
Chicago’s offense has powered the club to the top of the division, but it has been virtually nonexistent lately. The Cubs lead the NL with 509 runs, but have scored only one run in each game at Houston (46-51), and a total of four runs during their three-game losing streak.
“We’re not getting much hitting anywhere in the lineup,” Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. “I wasn’t expecting this. I expected to come out of the gate scoring runs. Other teams are scoring, so I don’t think the break is too much of an excuse for anybody else.”
The Astros won their fourth straight game Saturday after losing eight of their previous 10.
Houston is still five games under .500 and 11 games out of first, but All-Star shortstop Miguel Tejada believes the first two games of this series are prove the Astros can make a second-half surge.
“When you do good against a team like this, the whole world is watching,” said Tejada, who is 5-for-8 with a RBI in the first two games of this series. “Right now, the whole team is having fun. That’s why we’re winning.”
Carlos Lee hit a solo homer in Friday’s series-opening 2-1 win and drove in his 78th run on Saturday. Lee is batting .420 (29-for-69) with five home runs and 19 RBIs in his last 17 games, and is 10-for-31 (.323) with three homers and eight RBIs in eight games against the Cubs this season.
Chicago’s Ryan Dempster (10-4, 3.25 ERA) looks to shut down Lee and the Astros in the series finale, as he once again seeks his first road win of the season.
Dempster is enjoying his first full season as a starter since 2003. He made the NL All-Star team, but that had little to do with his pitching away from Wrigley Field. While Dempster has gone 10-1 with a 2.81 ERA in 12 home starts, the right-hander is just 0-3 with a 4.03 ERA in eight road outings.
Dempster’s only start against the Astros this season came at Houston on May 20, and he allowed four runs in six innings of a 4-2 loss.
The right-hander lost by the same score in his final start before the All-Star break, as he gave up four runs and seven hits in 6 2-3 innings of last Sunday’s loss to San Francisco - his first defeat of the season at Wrigley.
The Astros counter with Brandon Backe (6-9, 4.76), who ended the first half with one of his best starts of the season, giving up five hits and striking out five in seven innings of a 5-0 win over Washington last Sunday. It marked the first time since May 23 the right-hander threw at least seven innings.
“That’s the Brandon Backe we like,” manager Cecil Cooper said.
In his only start against the Cubs this season on April 6, Backe gave up two runs and six hits with seven strikeouts in a 3-2 loss, but did not factor in the decision.