Just over three weeks ago, the Chicago Cubs were in danger of falling out of first place in the NL Central. That’s no longer even remotely the case.
The Cubs attempt to build their largest division lead in 24 years when they continue their three-game series against the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday at Wrigley Field.
Chicago (77-48) stumbled out of the All-Star break, losing six of its first nine games and falling into a first-place tie with Milwaukee following a loss to Florida on July 26. The Cubs never relinquished first, though, and have since gone a major league-best 17-4 to open a six-game lead over the second-place Brewers - their largest division lead since June 22, 2001.
A victory over Cincinnati (55-71) Wednesday coupled with a Milwaukee loss to Houston would give Chicago its first seven-game lead since 1984.
The Cubs beat the Reds 5-0 in Tuesday’s series opener, their seventh victory in eight games.
Chicago scored four runs in the eighth inning after plating eight runs in the seventh inning of Sunday’s 9-2 win over the Marlins. The Cubs have been overpowering their opponents in the late innings lately, holding a 23-3 edge from the seventh inning on in their last seven games.
“One thing about our pitching staff for a good while now, they’ve given us the chance to win games on a continual basis,” Chicago manager Lou Piniella said.
On Wednesday, Piniella gives the ball to Ted Lilly (12-6, 4.32 ERA), who looks to help Chicago win its seventh straight series - something it hasn’t done since May 5-28, 1995.
The Cubs have won Lilly’s last five starts, with the left-hander posting a 3-0 record and 3.69 ERA in those outings. On Thursday, he gave up four runs and eight hits with eight strikeouts in six innings of an 11-7 victory over Atlanta.
Lilly is also 6-1 with a 4.14 ERA in his last 10 games at Wrigley - nine of which the Cubs have won. His lone loss in that span, though, came to Cincinnati on July 10, when he surrendered four runs and six hits in a season-low 2 2-3 innings of Chicago’s 12-7 defeat.
Lilly is 0-3 with a 6.08 ERA in five career starts versus the Reds at Wrigley.
Tuesday’s loss dropped Cincinnati to an NL-worst 5-18 since July 25.
The Reds, who also lost for the eighth time in their last 11 games at Wrigley, had only three hits and struck out 13 times.
Cincinnati’s Bronson Arroyo (10-10, 5.51) defeated Lilly in his only start of the season against the Cubs on July 10, and will try to do so again Wednesday. Arroyo, who yielded five runs and seven hits in five innings to escape with the win, had been 0-3 with a 2.95 ERA in his previous six starts versus Chicago.
On Friday, the right-hander allowed five runs and nine hits in 6 1-3 innings of a 5-3 loss to St. Louis. Arroyo fell to 1-3 with a 5.11 ERA over his last four outings.