After playing 20 games in 20 days, the Chicago Cubs finally got a break.
Alfonso Soriano, though, didn’t seem to mind all the work.
Coming off their first day off since the All-Star break, the Cubs and a red-hot Soriano look to further distance themselves from their NL Central rivals when they open a three-game set with the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday.
Chicago (69-46) has played well despite a grueling schedule, winning nine of 11 to open a five-game lead over Milwaukee and a six-game advantage over St. Louis (64-53) in the Central.
Much of the Cubs’ recent success is due to Soriano, who is hitting .348 with six home runs, five doubles and 15 RBIs in 11 games since returning from a broken finger. Chicago has outscored its opponents 75-39 during that stretch after managing two runs or less in four of its previous six contests.
Soriano launched a three-run homer during an eight-run third inning in the Cubs’ 11-5 win over Houston on Wednesday.
“His presence in the lineup means a lot to us in different ways,” Piniella said. “We can rest our catcher (Geovany Soto) a little more. We can rotate our outfield a little more. … It gives us a lot of flexibility, and when he gets hot, it carries us.”
Chicago has also gotten excellent pitching over its last 11 games, posting a 3.40 ERA. Ted Lilly (11-6, 4.35 ERA), who will take the mound Friday, is 2-0 with a 2.84 ERA in his last four starts, and has won 10 of his last 12 decisions.
The left-hander allowed one run and six hits while striking out five in 6 1-3 innings to earn a win as Chicago beat Pittsburgh 5-1 on Saturday.
Lilly is 1-0 with a 3.46 ERA in two starts versus the Cardinals this season, and 4-2 with a 3.06 ERA in eight career starts against them. He’ll be facing a St. Louis team that went 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position in a 4-1 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday.
Ryan Ludwick’s consecutive home run streak ended at five games as the Cardinals missed a chance to sweep the three-game series. Ludwick, whose run tied a St. Louis record, has 29 homers and is batting .475 (19-for-40) during a 10-game hitting streak.
Ludwick is 2-for-12 (.167) versus Lilly, while fellow Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols is batting .381 (8-for-21) with two home runs and two doubles against him.
The duo will try to provide some offense for Braden Looper (10-9, 4.29), who has gone 1-2 in his last three starts despite posting a 2.37 ERA over that span.
The veteran right-hander gave up two runs and three hits in seven innings as St. Louis lost 2-1 to Philadelphia on Saturday night.
Looper is 3-4 with a 2.39 ERA in five starts and 32 relief appearances versus Chicago.
The Cubs and Cardinals have split six games this season, all played at St. Louis.