Lilly starts final week vs. Willis
Cubs (83-73) at Florida (66-90), Tuesday, 6:05 p.m. CT
Time for the Cubs' final road trip of the regular season, and time to flaunt that "swagger" that manager Lou Piniella has talked about.
"We know what's at stake, we know the importance of this last week and keeping everybody healthy and hopefully it will pan out for us," Cubs outfielder Cliff Floyd said.
The Cubs head into the final six games of the regular season with a 3 1/2-game lead in the National League Central over the Milwaukee Brewers, their largest cushion of the year. The Brewers finish with a seven-game homestand against St. Louis and San Diego.
"We're playing good, but we still can't get ahead of ourselves," Chicago's Derrek Lee said. "We've still got six big games to go, so we just continue playing like we're playing, and things will work out."
The road has been relatively kind to the Cubs, who are the only NL Central team with a winning record away from home at 39-36. They will play three at Florida, starting Tuesday, and three at Cincinnati.
"They have a very good team and play very well at home," Alfonso Soriano said of the Marlins. "We have to continue to win and play like we're playing now."
The Cubs have won 11 of their last 14 games, and are very different from the club the Marlins faced in late May at Wrigley Field. Florida swept a three-game series in Chicago May 28-30, with Sean Marshall, Jason Marquis and Ted Lilly taking the losses. After that series, the Cubs were in third place and six games out with a 22-29 record.
Now 83-73 and a season-high 10 games over .500, the Cubs can only hope to wrap things up before arriving in Cincinnati Friday. They are 7-8 against the Reds, and won the most recent series Sept. 17-19 at Wrigley.
"The road scares me," Floyd said. "You're playing teams that can hit in their ballpark, in their environment. They're getting home cooked meals, they're relaxing in their stadium, and it kind of scares me.
"I know the Marlins team, and there aren't a lot of fans down there and not a lot to shoot for in terms of winning this thing, but they have some good players who I know would love to spoil it for us," Floyd said.
The Cubs' pitching has been fairly consistent, and there were some questions about the offense before the weekend outburst against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Chicago has clubbed 38 homers in September, tying the franchise record for the month set in 2004. Ten of those came in the three-game sweep of Pittsburgh.
"We've been playing good baseball for a long time after a slow start," Piniella said. "I felt all along that in September, we'd get hot and we have. Let me tell you this, we still have some work to do. This is a tough little trip to south Florida and then to Cincinnati. They're two teams that are playing well and scoring runs, and we just have to take care of business."
Remember a year ago? The Cubs were out of the race, rumors were swirling about manager Dusty Baker's status, and there lots of empty seats at Wrigley Field. Not this September.
"You come to the park, and you try to go through your normal day and wake up and have breakfast, but everything's different," Floyd said. "You leave a little early to get to the park. You may not take care of business things you need to take care of, because you know you've got things to take care of at the park."
Is it more pressure packed or fun?
"It's fun," Floyd said. "It's a lot of fun. I wouldn't say 'pressure.' If anything, I'd say there's anxiety, and you have a little more anxiety than you would normally have. After the first pitch, after the first out, you relax a little bit. Anticipation is what gets you. Once you get into the game, everything calms down."
Floyd has played in the postseason in 1997 with the Florida Marlins and in 2006 with the New York Mets. He's the first to admit he feels a little anxious but it's a good feeling.
"Everybody's anticipating us winning this thing," he said. "They probably have more anxiety than us players. Hopefully we can eliminate some of that and play some games so we can have a cushion at the end so everybody can relax and have a beer and chill out."
Cubs at Florida: The Marlins swept the series in May at Wrigley Field, and the losses were so bad that the Cubs held a players-only meeting before the May 30 game. "I don't think we're playing the way we should," Aramis Ramirez said at the time. The Marlins won the first game, 5-3; and the second game, 9-4, in what Piniella said "might be our worst game of the year." They then took the series finale, 9-0.
The low points in the series included bad baserunning, poor relief pitching and a lack of clutch hitting. Chicago will see two lefties this week, but after facing three in a row against Pittsburgh, the Cubs are now 6-1 this month, and 9-3 since Aug. 16.
Game 1, Tuesday: LHP Ted Lilly (15-7, 3.78 ERA) vs. LHP Dontrelle Willis (9-15, 5.32 ERA)
Lilly vs. Florida: 0-1, 6.43 ERA in 2007.
Willis vs. Cubs: 1-0, 5.14 ERA in 2007.
Cubs vs. LHP: 19-22.
Keep an eye on: Alfonso Soriano is batting .307 (31-for-101) this month, with 12 homers and 22 RBIs. Can he keep up the pace? Soriano is 8-for-17 lifetime against Willis with one homer and two doubles.
Game 2, Wednesday: RHP Jason Marquis (12-8, 4.35 ERA) vs. RHP Daniel Barone (1-3, 5.40 ERA)
Marquis vs. Florida: 0-1, 7.20 ERA in 2007.
Barone vs. Cubs: Has never faced Chicago.
Cubs vs. RHP: 64-51.
Keep an eye on: Floyd will likely be back in the lineup against the right-hander. It's a homecoming of sorts for Floyd, who played for the Marlins from 1997-2002. He has a career .276 average at Dolphin Stadium with 57 homers and 211 RBIs.
Game 3, Thursday: RHP Steve Trachsel (1-2, 7.62 ERA) vs. LHP Scott Olsen (9-15, 5.88 ERA)
Trachsel vs. Florida: 3-0, 2.00 ERA in 2006 (Has not faced Florida in 2007)
Olsen vs. Cubs: 0-0, 5.40 ERA in 2006 (Has not faced Chicago in 2007)
Keep an eye on: Let's see if one of the kids comes through. Sam Fuld has made some big catches in his role as defensive sub, and rookie Geovany Soto will likely start against the lefty. Soto is batting .395 and has thrown out three of 11 basestealers.
Cubs at Cincinnati: The Reds played the Cubs tough, and they lead the season series, 8-7. Chicago won't have to worry about Ken Griffey Jr., out for the year with a groin injury suffered at Wrigley. Expect a lot of Cubs fans to be in the crowd at Great American Ball Park.
This series will feature the fifth matchup between Reds ace Aaron Harang and Chicago's Carlos Zambrano. Big Z has yet to beat the right-hander. "He's a competitive pitcher," Harang said of Zambrano. "It's always fun to throw in games where the intensity is really high. The other guy over there is one of the top guys in the league."
Game 1, Friday: LHP Rich Hill (10-8, 4.05 ERA) vs. RHP Bronson Arroyo (9-14, 4.22 ERA)
Hill vs. Cincinnati: 1-0, 3.24 ERA in 2007.
Keep an eye on: Mark DeRosa is 10-for-19 (.526) at Great American Ball Park this year with a double, a home run and five RBIs. On Sept. 17, he went 5-for-5 against Arroyo and the Reds at Wrigley Field.
Game 2, Saturday: RHP Carlos Zambrano (17-13, 4.08 ERA) vs. RHP Aaron Harang (16-5, 3.70 ERA)
Zambrano vs. Cincinnati: 1-4, 6.59 ERA in 2007.
Harang vs. Cubs: 3-1, 4.85 ERA.
Keep an eye on: Aramis Ramirez has thrived at Great American Ball Park. He came into this season batting .333 with 12 homers and 27 RBIs there, and this year is 10-for-21 with two doubles in Cincinnati.
Game 3, Sunday: LHP Ted Lilly (15-7, 3.78 ERA) vs. RHP Homer Bailey (3-2, 6.09 ERA)
Lilly vs. Cincinnati: 1-1, 3.60 ERA in 2007
Bailey vs. Cubs: Has never faced Chicago.
Keep an eye on: Will the Cubs have clinched by now? It'd be nice to see Kerry Wood finish strong. The right-hander seems to be thriving in the relief role. He's also the only player on the Cubs' roster who has appeared in the postseason with the team, in 1998 and 2003.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.