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Lou Piniella Returns To Scene Of Success As Cubs Visit Mariners

(Sports Network) - Fresh off their first three-game series sweep in two months, the Seattle Mariners will now shoot for their longest winning streak of the season when they take the field tonight against the Chicago Cubs.

The Mariners enter this three-game interleague series having won four consecutive contests, the last three of which came at the expense of National League Central contender Cincinnati over the weekend. Outstanding pitching carried Seattle to the sweep, the team's first three-gamer since April 19-21 against Baltimore, with the M's limiting the Reds' normally-potent offense to a mere one run over the three games.

Seattle claimed a 1-0 decision in two of its three matchups with Cincinnati, including Sunday's finale in which Ryan-Rowland Smith tossed six effective innings to record a long-awaited first victory of the season.

Rowland-Smith, who had lost his first six decisions of 2010 and brought an unimpressive 6.44 earned run average into Sunday's test, yielded just three hits and worked around five walks to end his drought.

"There was a bit of frustration when I came off in that seventh inning after walking a few guys, but I'm not going to let that get in the way of everything else I did well [Sunday]," said Rowland-Smith, who was removed after issuing a free pass to the first two Cincinnati hitters in the seventh. "It was something good to build off and there's plenty of season left, so just keep rolling with it."

Brandon League and David Aardsma finished off the three-hit shutout for Seattle, while Chone Figgins scored the game's only run after leading off the bottom of the fourth with a single and advancing to third on a Jose Lopez base hit before coming home on Franklin Gutierrez's sacrifice fly.

The disappointing Mariners, who still reside at the bottom of the American League West, also won four in a row from April 13-17. Seattle will attempt to extend its run tonight behind Jason Vargas, one of the team's real bright spots over the course of this campaign.

Vargas entered this season with a 9-14 career record and a 5.43 ERA in brief stints with the Mariners, Florida and the New York Mets, but he's established himself as a mainstay in the Seattle rotation with his performance so far. The left-hander has compiled a 5-2 record with a sound 2.88 ERA through 13 starts and lasted at least six innings in 11 of those games.

The 27-year-old has been particularly good at Safeco Field, where he's gone 4-1 with a 2.61 ERA in eight home starts. He also hasn't taken a loss since May 4, having recorded three victories and five no-decisions in eight subsequent outings.

Vargas put forth one of his best performances of 2010 this past Wednesday in St. Louis, where he held the NL Central-leading Cardinals to one run on five hits over a season-high 7 2/3 innings to gain the win. In his previous start -- also against an NL division leader -- he tossed six innings of two-run ball in a June 11 no-decision at San Diego.

The Long Beach State product is 1-0 with a 4.74 ERA over three career meetings with the Cubs, but hasn't faced Chicago since 2007.

Like Seattle, the Cubs have also failed to meet expectations so far in 2010, as the team presently stands seven games under .500 (31-38) and seven games back of St. Louis in the NL Central race. Chicago will be heading into a six- game road trip on a high note, however, after routing the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim by a 12-1 count Sunday at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs pounded out 18 hits for the game and put up eight unanswered runs over the first three innings to build a commanding lead. Seven of Chicago's starters -- including pitcher Carlos Zambrano -- finished with at least two hits on the day.

"This is what we're capable of doing," Cubs manager Lou Piniella remarked afterward. "We just have to see if we can get consistent with it."

Derrek Lee went 2-for-4 with four RBI to lead Chicago's offensive barrage, while Ryan Theriot collected three hits and scored three runs in the win. Zambrano finished 2-for-4 with an RBI single in addition to delivering seven strong innings on the mound, with the fiery right-hander surrendering just one run and fanning seven to move to 3-5 on the season.

Ryan Dempster would love to receive similar support when he pitches for the Cubs this evening. The veteran righty would probably settle for his team's output during his latest start, though, a 6-2 decision over Oakland last Wednesday in which he allowed two runs and struck out seven over 6 2/3 innings to pick up the win.

Dempster has now won three of his last four decisions and put forth a quality start in nine of his 14 appearances this season. The 33-year-old has posted a respectable 3.67 ERA for the year and has held opposing hitters to a .225 batting average.

The British Columbia native will be pitching for the first time at Safeco Field and has only faced the Mariners twice previously, both in relief. Seattle is one of just three teams, along with the Angels and Rangers, that Dempster has never made a start against.

The Cubs will be making their second-ever visit to Seattle, having taken two of three tilts from the Mariners at Safeco Field back in 2002. Chicago also won two of three from Seattle at Wrigley Field during the 2007 season.