Cubs hope to get healthy, be even better

By The Associated Press

CHICAGO – The Cubs figure they’ll have to play even better in the second half – especially away from Wrigley Field – after forging a tie for the best record in baseball before the All-Star break.

St. Louis (four games back) and Milwaukee (five out) aren’t that far behind in the NL Central, where the three best records in the league reside.

For starters, the Cubs hope to get their full team back on the field as they try to end a 100-year drought without a World Series title.

They need to get leadoff hitter Alfonso Soriano healthy. The Cubs are 24-19 with the star left fielder on the disabled list, first with a calf injury and then a broken hand from being hit with a pitch. And they are only 15-14 since his second stint began June 12. He’s expected back next week.

“Soriano has been the disabled list twice. He probably missed six weeks of the first half. (Carlos) Zambrano was on the DL, we lost (Rich) Hill for the whole first half and the team still functioned and held its own,” manager Lou Piniella said.

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Most importantly, the Cubs need to win on the road. They’ve been a dominant 37-12 at Wrigley Field, but only 20-26 away from home. And they’ve yet to play in Milwaukee this season. They have four games at Miller Park at the end of July and then finish the season there with three games against the Brewers. Their final week also includes a four-game set against the Mets at Shea Stadium.

And Piniella knows everyone will be shooting for the Cubs, starting Friday in Houston when they launch the second half with a six-game road trip against the Astros and Diamondbacks.

“We got a tough little road right after the break. Plus I think teams are going to enjoy to slow us down some,” Piniella said. “There is going to be about 65 tough games to play.”

Zambrano spent time on the DL with a sore shoulder but has been sharp since his return, and left-handed relief specialist Scott Eyre also was out twice, with a sore elbow and a groin injury. Closer Kerry Wood couldn’t pitch in the All-Star game because of a blister.

Chicago also needs to get talented setup man Carlos Marmol straightened out. One of the NL’s top relievers for the first two months, Marmol had a 1.75 ERA at the end of May. But Marmol has at times struggled with his control and that figure ballooned to 4.13 by the time he was named as a replacement for Wood in the All-Star game.

With Rich Harden acquired in a trade to go with Zambrano, converted closer Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly – who was hit hard by the Reds in his final start before the All-Star break – the Cubs have the rotation to return to the playoffs. They’ve overcome the loss of Hill, who started Game 3 of the playoffs against Arizona last season but has been sent back to the minors after also struggling with his control.

“A lot to be happy about in the first half, but a lot to stay humble about as well,” second baseman Mark DeRosa said. “A lot of guys have played up to expectations. I don’t think anyone has played above or below it. When we left spring training this was the idea of the team we were supposed to have.”

So the Cubs are counting on getting Soriano back. They have All-Stars in third baseman Aramis Ramirez, rookie catcher Geovany Soto and outfielder Kosuke Fukudome – though Fukudome has appeared a bit weary lately. With always steady Derrek Lee, a consistent bat from shortstop Ryan Theriot and veteran pickups like Jim Edmonds and Reed Johnson, they appear ready for a run at October. It won’t be easy.

“Names don’t win baseball games for you, production does,” Piniella said. “I’ll tell you this, we’re going to have our hands full the rest of the summer. You look at the teams in our division and all of them have winning records at home.”