Houston Astros starter Bud Norris wanted to improve upon a spotty 2011, and he's doing just that.
The slumping Chicago Cubs might not be able to do much to slow down his strong start to 2012.
Norris will try to win a career-best fourth consecutive start Monday night at Minute Maid Park, where the Astros and Cubs begin the final season of their NL Central rivalry.
Norris (4-1, 3.58 ERA) set career bests last season with 176 strikeouts, 186 innings pitched and a 3.77 ERA, but he finished 6-11 and put too much pressure on the Astros bullpen by failing to go six innings in 11 of his 31 outings.
"He came in saying he wanted to have a different year this year and I think with the way he's gone about his business and gone about how he's pitched has been along those lines,'' manager Brad Mills said after Norris struck out a season-high nine and allowed one run in seven innings of Wednesday's 8-3 victory over Milwaukee. "There's no reason to think that's going to change as he continues to put together good outing after good outing.''
Norris is 2-2 with a 2.31 ERA in four starts against Chicago. He'll face a Cubs team that's batting .227 during its season high-tying six-game losing streak.
"We need some production,'' Cubs manager Dale Sveum said after Sunday's 6-0 loss to the Chicago White Sox. "The bottom line is two months into the season, we have to start producing or we're going to have to start making some changes.''
Sveum admitted that the club will start discussions about calling up first base prospect Anthony Rizzo from Triple-A Iowa, where he's batting .353 with 14 homers and 39 RBIs.
"He's done everything he can down there, but when you bring somebody up like that he's got to play every day so that's the million dollar question," Sveum said. "How do we get him playing time?''
Current starting first baseman Bryan LaHair, the team leader with 10 homers, could eventually move to the outfield with Rizzo's eventual arrival, but a bigger concern is for LaHair to start hitting for contact. He finished 1 for 16 with seven strikeouts on the Cubs' just-completed 0-5 homestand.
The Cubs (15-26) will try to avoid their first seven-game losing streak since an eight-game skid last May 30-June 7 that began with a three-game home sweep to Houston (18-23). They're opening a six-game trip with their first of two series at Minute Maid Park this season. The teams will play 15 times in 2012, before the Astros move to the AL in 2013.
Monday's scheduled Cubs starter Matt Garza (2-1, 2.58) is 0-2 with a 3.00 ERA in four career starts against Houston. The right-hander has given up two runs or fewer in six of seven starts overall, and yielded two in 6 2-3 innings of Wednesday's 9-2 loss to Philadelphia.
Garza won't have to face Astros center fielder Jordan Schafer (muscle strain on his lower right leg), but he should be careful pitching to Carlos Lee. The veteran first baseman has 38 homers and 104 RBIs off Cubs pitching – by far his most in both categories against any opponent.
Chicago won eight of 15 versus Houston last season, with the teams splitting six games at Minute Maid.