While climbing into playoff contention still seems very unlikely, the Chicago Cubs have proven plenty formidable over the last three-plus weeks.
Travis Wood has been a big part of that success.
Looking to win a career-high fifth consecutive start, Wood takes the mound as the Cubs try for a season-best fifth victory in a row Tuesday night in the first of three with the visiting Miami Marlins.
Sitting 13 1/2 games back in the NL Central, Chicago (36-52) appears all but certain to miss the postseason for a fourth consecutive year. The Cubs, though, have picked up the pace considerably, winning 12 of 16 while their starters have compiled a 3.13 ERA - more than a full run lower than their season mark of 4.16.
"Our staff, top to bottom, has been throwing the ball really well, commanding the strike zone, getting ahead of hitters," second baseman Darwin Barney told the team's official website.
Chicago's rotation has been especially sharp during the club's four-game winning streak, going 4-0 with a 0.36 ERA. The Cubs outscored Arizona 15-3 during a three-game sweep over the weekend, capped by Sunday's 3-1 victory.
Matt Garza threw seven scoreless innings while Barney provided most of the offense with a two-run homer. Garza and Barney are two of several key players who could be traded prior to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
"You think about that a lot," manager Dale Sveum said. "You don't dwell on it, but just to be having a streak like this and win a lot of ballgames, you don't want to lose pieces to that puzzle."
The Cubs have to like their chances of keeping things going with Wood (4-3, 3.05 ERA) on the hill. The left-hander has been superb while winning each of his last four outings, posting a 1.01 ERA and holding opponents to a .181 average.
Wood, though, wasn't particularly sharp in his final start before the All-Star break, allowing three runs, five hits and a season worst-tying four walks over six-plus innings during an 8-7 road win over the New York Mets on July 6.
In his only career start versus the Marlins (43-46), Wood gave up seven runs over 3 1-3 innings of a 7-6 loss while with Cincinnati on April 29, 2011.
Miami has had its way with the Cubs of late, outscoring them 39-14 during a five-game winning streak. The Marlins swept a three-game series at home April 17-19.
Miami salvaged a four-game split against Washington with a 5-3 victory Monday. Former Cub Carlos Zambrano threw six quality innings while Hanley Ramirez hit a two-run homer - just his second in 34 games.
"I think I have been hitting balls hard just right to people," said Ramirez, mired in a 3-for-28 slump. "It's nothing I can control. At the end of the day, it's that 'W.' It's why we are here."
Ramirez is surely looking forward to facing the Cubs. He's 17 for 43 (.395) with four homers and 10 RBIs during a 10-game hitting streak in this series.
The Marlins, meanwhile, give the ball to Anibal Sanchez (4-6, 4.12), who's 1-3 with a 6.69 ERA over his last seven starts. The right-hander, though, pitched well the last time he took the mound July 8, giving up two runs and five hits over six innings of a 5-4 walkoff loss at St. Louis.
Sanchez is 0-2 with a 7.04 ERA in his last three matchups with the Cubs.
Tuesday marks Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen's first trip back to Chicago since leaving the White Sox for Miami after eight seasons on the South Side.