Everything seems to be finally coming around for the Chicago Cubs, who will try to carry the momentum of a series win over a divisional leader into the start of their four-game series with the Washington Nationals on Monday night at RFK Stadium.
The Cubs (40-40) took two of three games from the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers over the weekend, capped by Sunday’s 5-1 victory. Chicago moved within 6 1/2 games of Milwaukee with its eighth win in nine games and now has a chance to climb over .500 for the first time since owning a 16-15 record on May 9.
“I think we’re playing real good, solid baseball,” winning pitcher Jason Marquis said. “We’re minimizing mistakes. Obviously, we expect to win.”
The play of the Cubs during their recent surge was expected of them from the outset, when they went on a free agent spending spree that cost nearly $300 million in contracts. Alfonso Soriano, the team’s primary offseason acquisition, is 12-for-39 (.308) with three homers in the last nine games, and first baseman Derrek Lee went 3-for-4 with two runs and an RBI on Sunday.
“I think the team is starting to enjoy playing, enjoying the game,” Soriano told the Cubs’ official Web site. “That’s the difference. I think the team now had a very good month, and hopefully we can have another good month. Now we feel like a team.”
Soriano and Lee were also named to the National League All-Star team on Sunday.
While Ted Lilly (6-4, 4.03 ERA) is trying to win his third consecutive decision, he is winless on the road since May 13. The left-hander - another of Chicago’s free agent overhaul in the winter - labored to a victory Tuesday against Colorado, giving up four runs and six hits with five walks in six innings of an 8-5 win.
“I definitely didn’t have my best stuff,” said Lilly, who threw a season-high 114 pitches. “This was one of those games where you battle, but fortunately some of our guys made unbelievable plays.”
Lilly is 2-2 with a 2.25 ERA in five lifetime starts against the franchise that drafted him in 1999 when it was still in Montreal. He scattered five hits and two walks in six shutout innings in winning his only appearance against Washington last season.
Chicago swept three games from Washington May 4-6, but has lost five straight at RFK after being swept last July 21-23.
The Nationals (33-48) were able to avoid a winless road trip with a 3-2 victory at Pittsburgh on Sunday. Jesus Flores hit his first home run, a two-run shot in the sixth inning that gave Washington’s punchless offense just enough to avoid a sixth consecutive loss.
“I said, ‘Thank you’ to him to put it in the middle of the plate where I could get it,” said the 22-year-old Flores, who started only because catcher Brian Schneider got a day off.
Washington scored just 10 runs during its road trip and has not scored more than four in a game since a 9-8 loss to Detroit on June 18.
The lack of offense recently hasn’t hindered Jason Simontacchi (5-5, 5.81), who goes for his fourth win in five starts for the Nationals. The right-hander, who won two of those starts despite getting only two runs of support in each game, limited the Cleveland Indians to one run in six innings and matching a season high with six strikeouts in a 3-1 victory on June 24.
Simontacchi is 1-2 in five career starts versus the Cubs, but this will be his first game against them since 2003.
First baseman Dmitri Young, selected to the All-Star game, is 19-for-54 (.352) in his last 14 games.