Despite a slew of injuries and an inconsistent offense, the Chicago Cubs are back atop the NL Central.
Looking to maintain that lead and match their season high with a fifth straight victory, the Cubs open a key four-game series Monday night against the Houston Astros and Wandy Rodriguez at Wrigley Field.Chicago (51-45) beat Cincinnati 5-2 on Sunday to complete a three-game sweep and move one-half game ahead of St. Louis in the Central."We're headed in the right direction," said manager Lou Piniella, whose two-time defending division champions have won 10 of their last 13 and lead the Central for the first time since April 21. "It's only a half-game, but we're on top."With Aramis Ramirez and pitchers Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden healthy, the Cubs have moved into first while starters Ted Lilly (shoulder) and Ryan Dempster (toe) and catcher Geovany Soto (oblique strain) are on the disabled list. First baseman Derrek Lee also continues to deal with neck spasms that kept him out Sunday."To go through some adversity can build a lot of character," catcher Koyie Hill told the Cubs' official Web site.Houston (50-48) is two games behind Chicago and enters this series trying to avoid a third straight loss. The Astros are 4-6 this season versus the Cubs, who last won five straight from May 10-16.Kosuke Fukudome drove in two runs and Alfonso Soriano added two hits Sunday for the Cubs, who are batting .343 and averaging 7.0 runs over their last four games. Chicago is near the bottom of the majors in runs (411) and hitting (.252).Soriano is batting .385 in his last 17 games since being dropped from the leadoff spot. The veteran left fielder, though, is 1 for 14 against Rodriguez, which could make having Lee back more important.Lee, who's batting .344 (11 for 32) with two homers and seven RBIs against Houston in 2009, is 12 for 27 (.444) with two home runs versus Rodriguez -- one of the top pitchers in the majors over the last month.Rodriguez (10-6, 2.72 ERA) allowed a solo homer and three other hits in seven innings of an 11-6 victory over St. Louis on Tuesday for his fifth straight win. The left-hander, who's given up one run and struck out 22 in 22 innings over his last three outings, is 5-0 with a 1.50 ERA in six starts since losing at Texas on June 16."He is really pitching with a lot of confidence, and he has the numbers to back it up," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "He's tough."Against the Cubs this season, Rodriguez has allowed two runs in 13 innings while not earning a decision in two home starts. He's 4-4 with a 4.09 ERA in 12 career starts versus Chicago, going 1/3 with an 8.25 ERA in five at Wrigley Field.The Cubs counter with Zambrano (7-4, 3.48), who's won three in a row overall and is 1-0 with a 1.29 ERA in two starts versus the Astros this season.The right-hander, who allowed four earned runs and 10 hits while striking out seven in 6 2/3 innings of a 10-5 win at Philadelphia on Wednesday, is 12-7 with a 2.61 ERA in 26 starts versus Houston.Carlos Lee, who's batting .365 (19 for 52) with four homers versus Zambrano, had three hits in Houston's 8-3 home loss to the New York Mets on Sunday.The Astros left fielder is a lifetime .314 hitter with 17 homers and 40 RBIs in 48 games at Wrigley.