Cubs Continue Pursuit

After stumbling through the first two months of the season, the Chicago Cubs surged into the All-Star break with one of the best records in the majors over the last month.

The Cubs look to continue their pursuit of first place in the NL Central when they open the second half of the season against the Houston Astros on Friday at Wrigley Field.

Oddsmakers have made Chicago -165 money line favorites (MLB Odds) for todays game, the over/under has been set at NL total runs (Matchup). Our public betting information shows that 84% of bets for this game have been placed on Chicago -165 (View MLB Bet Percentages).

Chicago (44-33) has won 22 of 34 games since June 3, and although it dropped two of three to lowly Pittsburgh in its final series before the All-Star break, manager Lou Piniella has been happy with the team's turnaround.

"The fact that we finished the first half strong, the fact that our team is playing with more confidence, things seem to have come together," Piniella told the team's official Web site.

The Cubs were 8 1/2 games behind first-place Milwaukee in the NL Central on June 23, but have since cut that deficit to 4 1/2 games.

"We just had a slow start," Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee said. "Now we're playing like we should be playing."

Lee was 1-for-2 in Tuesday's All-Star game, while teammate Alfonso Soriano hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to provide the final runs in the NL's 5-4 loss.

Soriano is batting .367 (11-for-30) with seven runs during a seven-game hitting streak, but is 1-for-11 (.091) in three games against Houston (39-50) this season.

While Soriano is struggling versus the Astros, Carlos Zambrano (10-7, 4.03 ERA) goes to the mound Friday looking to continue his recent brilliance against them.

Zambrano is 4-0 with a 0.46 ERA in five starts against Houston since the start of last season, allowing three runs and 15 hits with 36 strikeouts in 39 innings.

In his only start against the Astros this year, he allowed one run and three hits while striking out eight in eight innings of a 2-1 victory on June 11.

"It seems like whenever he pitches against us, he doesn't have any problems finding his "A' game," Houston's Lance Berkman said after that loss.

Berkman is batting .140 (7-for-50) with 14 strikeouts in his career against Zambrano.

On Sunday, the Cubs staff ace allowed three runs and four hits in seven innings of a 6-2 loss to the Pirates, but he's 5-2 with a 1.75 ERA in seven starts since June 6. The right-hander is 2-1 with a 1.17 ERA in his last three home starts, and in his only defeat in that stretch, he took a no-hit bid into the eighth against San Diego before losing 1-0 on June 16.

Houston has won two of three at Wrigley this season despite having the league's worst road record (15-28).

The Astros, owners of the third-worst record in the NL, defeated the New York Mets 8-3 on Sunday, winning for the seventh time in 11 games.

Rookie Hunter Pence went 2-for-5 with a triple and a double on Sunday, and is batting .405 (17-for-42) with three homers, seven RBIs and 10 runs in eight games this month.

Carlos Lee, who went 0-for-1 in the All-Star game, is batting .324 with 12 homers and 30 RBIs in 34 career games at Wrigley Field.

Jason Jennings (1-4, 4.07) looks to avoid losing four straight starts for the first time in his career when he takes the hill in Friday's series opener.

Jennings gave up five runs and nine hits in six innings of a 6-2 loss to the Mets in his last start on July 5. He has a 4.95 ERA during his three-start skid while walking 10 batters, the same number he walked through his first seven starts.

The right-hander has not faced the Cubs since 2005, and is 2-1 with a 3.96 ERA in four career starts against them.

by: Dave Michaels - thespread.com – Email Us

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