Harden's gem vaults Cubs into first place
Right-hander retires 16 in a row after first-inning home run
CHICAGO -- Rich Harden shrugged off his day/night, home/road splits on Sunday and focused on pitching, and the Cubs now find themselves in first place.
Harden struck out eight over six innings to help the Cubs beat the Cincinnati Reds, 5-2, completing a series sweep and moving into first place in the National League Central in front of 41,528 at Wrigley Field. It was Chicago's 10th win in its past 13 games.
The Cubs have a half-game lead over St. Louis, which lost, 9-2, to Philadelphia on Sunday. It's the first time Chicago has been in first since April 21. On that day, Harden also beat the Reds and Micah Owings, 7-2.
"We're starting to play good baseball when you need to play good baseball," Lou Piniella said. "There's a long couple months ahead of us, but we're headed in the right direction. It feels good to be on top. It's only a half a game, but we're on top."
Harden entered the game 2-5 at Wrigley compared to 4-1 on the road, and 1-5 in day games versus 5-1 at night. He called all the hoopla surrounding his lopsided numbers "ridiculous."
"I've just been feeling good [since the break]," Harden said. "The big thing for me was using my legs and being efficient throwing the ball. The first half, I wasn't doing that."
He gave up one hit -- Joey Votto's home run with two outs in the first -- and then retired 16 in a row before he was pulled. In three starts since the All-Star break, Harden is 2-0 and has given up two earned runs over 19 innings.
"The pitch to Votto wasn't the right one," said Harden, now 7-6 overall. "It ran back over the plate a little bit and he happened to get it when the wind was blowing hard out to right field. Other than that, I felt good."
After Votto's homer, the Cubs tied the game with two outs in the second, when Kosuke Fukudome drew a bases-loaded walk. Milton Bradley scored from first on Alfonso Soriano's double off Owings (6-11) to make it 2-1 in the third. Owings exited after three because of a tight right shoulder. Rookie Jake Fox added an RBI bloop single in the Cubs' seventh, the only ball he didn't hit hard all day.
"I squared the ball up four times today and the only one I got a hit on was one off the end of the bat," Fox said. "That's the way it goes sometimes."
Fukudome and Koyie Hill teamed up on a solid defensive play in the eighth, when the center fielder threw out Edwin Encarnacion, who tried to score on pinch-hitter Jerry Hairston's fly ball. In the Chicago eighth, Hill, the Ironman catcher, made it 4-1 with his first career triple, driving in pinch-hitter Reed Johnson, who had singled. Hill then scored on Fukudome's one-out single.
"They were talking about a squeeze after that [triple]," Hill said. "I said, 'I've got triple speed, I don't know about a squeeze.' I don't know if I've ever hit a triple in the big leagues. You see something new every day."
Last season, the Cubs moved into first on May 11 and never looked back, winning 97 games. It's been a struggle this year because of injuries and an inconsistent offense, but they've persevered.
"To go through some adversity can build a lot of character," said Hill, starting in place of injured Geovany Soto. "I'm proud to be in the position we are in, but at the same time, there's a lot of baseball to go. We only care about being in first place Nov. 4 or 5, whatever day that is, that final day. We'll keep plugging away."
There are lots of good signs. Bradley made a running catch in foul territory of Jonny Gomes' fly ball in the fifth, and also drew two walks and hit a single. Fukudome looks better at the plate. They're averaging 5.6 runs a game since the All-Star break. Having Aramis Ramirez back is huge. He didn't get an RBI on Sunday, but his presence definitely helps.
"Any team that loses their cleanup hitter will suffer, I don't care who you are -- if you're the Yankees or whoever, you're going to struggle for awhile," Ramirez said. "We went through that."
On Tuesday, Ryan Dempster returns from the disabled list. The team may be without Ted Lilly, but rookie pitchers Randy Wells and Kevin Hart have picked up the slack. They've got 66 games to go.
"It matters where we're at after 162 [games]," Bradley said. "After 110 or whatever we've got now, who cares? But it's better than chasing."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.