(Sports Network) - In search of a season-best fifth straight win, the surging Houston Astros will send ace Roy Oswalt to the mound in this evening's middle test of a three-game series with the slumping Chicago Cubs from Minute Maid Park.
While the Astros still reside at the bottom of the National League Central standings with a 21-34 overall record that's tied for the worst in the Senior Circuit, the team has been able to gain some ground on the rest of the division pack with its strong recent play. After winning the final three matchups of a four-game home set with Washington earlier in the week, Houston kept the Cubs' struggling offense at bay once again in a 3-1 triumph last night.
Felipe Paulino tossed eight outstanding innings to earn a long-awaited first victory of the season, while Lance Berkman continued his hot hitting of late to help Houston match a season high for consecutive victories.
Paulino limited the Cubs to one run on five hits and struck out seven to end a frustrating string of seven straight losses to begin the season, a number of which were in part due to a lack of run support.
"He was outstanding again," Houston manager Brad Mills said of Paulino. "This kid keeps continuing to get better."
Berkman finished 3-for-4 and knocked in a pair of runs and is batting .500 (9- for-18) with eight RBI during the Astros' current win streak. Michael Bourn had a big night at the plate as well, with the Houston leadoff hitter also collecting three hits while scoring twice.
Marlon Byrd had a pair of doubles and drove in the lone run for the Cubs, who have now dropped four in a row and six of their past eight games. Chicago has managed a paltry five runs over the course of its present slide.
Carlos Zambrano (1-4), making his first start for the Cubs since April 20, lasted 4 1/3 innings and surrendered three runs on six hits while walking three batters. The former staff ace had been used as a setup reliever for most of this season in an attempt to aid a troublesome bullpen.
"I thought he threw the ball well," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said of Zambrano. "He had a little trouble there in the first inning with a lot of pitches."
Like Paulino, Oswalt has often been the victim of a lack of offense during his 2010 campaign. The three-time All-Star has produced a sound 2.78 ERA over his 11 starts, but has just a 3-6 record to show for his efforts.
One of Oswalt's three wins did come at the expense of the Cubs, a 4-3 verdict at Wrigley Field on April 17 in which he fired seven shutout innings. The effort improved the standout right-hander to 14-12 with a 3.67 ERA in 31 career meetings (30 starts) with Chicago.
Oswalt put forth a quality start in each of his first 10 assignments this year, but that streak came to an end after he was reached for four runs in a brief outing against Washington on Monday. The 32-year-old was ejected with one out in the third inning after an exchange with home plate umpire Bill Hohn.
Prior to that appearance, Oswalt halted a five-start winless streak by hurling eight shutout innings to best Milwaukee May 26 at Miller Park, striking out nine and allowing just four hits on that night.
Ryan Dempster will oppose Oswalt this evening and will be out to atone for his worst performance of the season. The Chicago right-hander was roughed up for six runs and nine hits, including a pair of homers, in Sunday's 9-1 loss to St. Louis. He did last 6 2/3 innings in that game, however, and has pitched at least six frames in every one of his 11 starts this season.
Dempster was terrific in his previous trip to the hill, delivering eight shutout innings of three-hit ball to defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 25. He also pitched well against the Astros back on April 18, permitting just one run and four hits while striking out eight in a 7 2/3-inning stint that resulted in a no-decision after his team's bullpen blew a late lead.
The 33-year-old is 3-5 with a respectable 3.72 ERA for the season but has had problems when facing the Astros in the past. In 45 lifetime appearances against Houston, 19 of which have been starts, Dempster is just 4-10 with a 4.27 ERA. That includes a 2-6 record at Minute Maid Park.
Houston took two of three from the Cubs when these teams squared off in Chicago from April 16-18, but lost five of eight tilts between the clubs held at Minute Maid Park last season.