The Chicago Cubs’ lead in the NL Central allows them not to panic despite being in the middle of their longest losing streak at Wrigley Field in more than a year. It also meant staff ace Carlos Zambrano was afforded some extra rest when he needed it.
Zambrano takes the mound Tuesday as the Cubs look to avoid a fourth straight home loss when they continue their three-game series with the Houston Astros.
Zambrano (13-5, 3.53 ERA) had his scheduled start on Sunday against Philadelphia pushed back, allowing him to rest a tired arm. With the Cubs (85-53) leading the Milwaukee Brewers by 4 1/2 games in the NL Central, they are trying to avoid overextending Zambrano as they prepare for a potential playoff run. Zambrano has already made one trip to the disabled list this season because of a strained right shoulder.
“We’re looking at this over the long haul,” pitching coach Larry Rothschild said Sunday. “It’s the right thing to do, no matter what.”
The Cubs hope the extra rest will help Zambrano rebound from his struggles last month. He labored in August, going 1-1 with a 7.43 ERA in five outings. In three of them, he lasted five innings or fewer.
The hard-throwing right-hander’s August slump isn’t unusual. Zambrano is 12-16 with a 4.22 ERA in 38 August starts over his career, but he has traditionally rebounded in September, going 17-9 with a 3.22 ERA in 31 starts and four relief appearances in his career.
“It’s just that he’s gone through this every year the last four or five years, at a point in time where his arm feels a little bit heavy, tired,” Rothschild said.
Zambrano is coming off one of his shortest starts this season. He pitched 4 1-3 innings against the Pirates last Tuesday, allowing six runs and eight hits in a 14-9 win.
Zambrano is 1-1 with a 4.05 ERA in two starts against Houston this season. He is 5-4 with a 2.03 ERA in 11 career starts against the Astros at Wrigley Field, including 4-0 with a 0.91 ERA over his last four.
Astros slugger Lance Berkman is just 9-for-57 (.158) with 16 strikeouts against Zambrano. Berkman went 2-for-2 in Monday’s 3-0 win over the Cubs, but is still batting just .184 (7-for-38) against them this year.
Chicago’s offensive woes continued Monday as it managed just four hits over 8 1-3 innings against Roy Oswalt.
The Cubs, who have the NL’s best home record (51-22), have lost three straight at Wrigley Field, scoring only five runs in those games. Chicago’s last 27 hits are all singles, and the Cubs haven’t had an extra base hit since Alfonso Soriano homered in the seventh inning of Friday’s game against the Phillies.
The Cubs last lost four straight at home in May 2007.
“There is still a long way to go. We’re not relaxing or anything. We just haven’t scored for a few days here,” said Derrek Lee, who is 3-for-15 in the last four games. “It’s happened to us a couple of times before and we’ll turn it around.”
Houston (72-66), meanwhile has won six straight and 25 of its last 35 games. The Astros, however, are 13 games behind the Cubs in the NL Central and 8 1/2 behind the Brewers in the wild-race.
Brandon Backe (9-12, 5.42) looks to win his third straight start Tuesday. After holding the Mets to three runs over seven innings on Aug. 23, Backe limited the Reds to two runs and six hits over 6 2-3 innings of a 3-2 win on Thursday.
Backe is 0-2 with a 9.56 ERA in three starts against Chicago this season.