The Chicago Cubs emerged from two weeks of division play with some breathing room at the top of the NL Central.
Now, the Cubs will be trying to extend their lead and continue their domination of the Atlanta Braves as the teams open a three-game series Tuesday at Turner Field.
The Cubs (71-47) led the NL Central by one game before sweeping a four-game series in Milwaukee July 28-31. Chicago then took two of three at home in each of its series against Pittsburgh, Houston and St. Louis.
“We won three series here at home,” manager Lou Piniella told the Cubs’ official Web site after Sunday’s 6-2 victory over the Cardinals. “That was the important thing. That’s really what we’re attempting to do, is win series and go from there.”
The Cubs own the best home record in the NL at 45-17, but they also have some momentum on the road, where they have won a season-high five straight. That winning streak is the longest since June 22-July 3 last season for Chicago, which hasn’t won six straight road games since May 17-June 2, 2005.
The Cubs will be trying to extend that run against a Braves team they swept in three games at Wrigley Field from June 10-12. Chicago, which also visits Florida for three games this weekend, outscored Atlanta 20-9 in that series.
The Braves (55-63) have since fallen out of playoff contention, but they also enter this series with some momentum. Atlanta is returning home after winning four of seven on the road, the team’s first winning trip of the season.
The Braves came within a win of sweeping a four-game series against NL West-leading Arizona before running into Brandon Webb and falling 6-1 in Sunday’s finale.
“To win three out of four against their pitching staff is pretty good,” manager Bobby Cox said. “They’ve got an outstanding staff and getting three is big.”
The Braves got a boost with the return of Chipper Jones to the lineup. Jones, who leads the majors with a .370 batting average, is 4-for-10 with five runs in three games since a stint on the DL with a left hamstring strain.
On Tuesday, the Braves will hand the ball to rookie starter Charlie Morton (3-5, 5.70 ERA), who has never faced the Cubs.
Morton snapped a three-start losing streak on Thursday, throwing seven shutout innings in a 6-4 win over Arizona. It was the second straight strong outing for the right-hander, who also went seven innings on Aug. 2 against Milwaukee, five days after he was pounded for eight runs in 3 2-3 innings against St. Louis.
“I know I’m capable of pitching well,” Morton said. “I also know I’m capable of pitching badly. And it can change in a heartbeat.”
Chicago counters with Rich Harden, who is making his sixth start since joining the Cubs in a July 8 trade with Oakland. The right-hander gave up five runs in 5 2-3 innings last Tuesday but didn’t get a decision in Chicago’s 11-7 home win over Houston.
Despite that rocky outing, he is 1-1 with a 2.10 ERA since joining the Cubs.
Harden’s only previous start against the Braves came on May 17, when he gave up one run in seven innings of a 5-4 road win while with Oakland.