(Sports Network) - The Chicago Cubs have been in a major rut for nearly three weeks now. With the way St. Louis Cardinals co-ace Chris Carpenter has been pitching as of late, the team's luck doesn't figure to change much today.
Carpenter will attempt to extend his current undefeated streak and lead the Cardinals to a fifth consecutive victory when the National League Central leaders continue a three-game series with the downtrodden Cubs this afternoon at Busch Stadium.
St. Louis handed the Cubs their 14th loss in 16 games with a 6-3 decision in Friday's opener of this set. The win kept the Cardinals one game in front of Cincinnati for the Central's top spot, with the Reds defeating Florida last night.
Albert Pujols went 3-for-5 with a homer and three runs scored to pace St. Louis in the opener, while Yadier Molina knocked in a pair of runs to help Jake Westbrook earn his first win in a Cardinals uniform.
Making his third start since being acquired by St. Louis from Cleveland at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, Westbrook (1-0) settled down after a shaky first inning to throw six effective frames. The veteran righty gave up a two- run single to Marlon Byrd in the top of the first and a double to Blake DeWitt later in the inning, but got out of the jam and kept Chicago scoreless the rest of the way.
"I felt good but just got a few balls in the middle of the plate," Westbrook said. "I made a good pitch to Byrd, he did a good job fighting it off and getting a hit. To get out of that giving up only two runs was big and after that, I was able to settle down."
Cubs starter Thomas Diamond (0-3) failed to match Westbrook, as the rookie was tagged for four runs and issued four walks before exiting after only four innings.
"He threw a lot of pitches, he was behind in the count and he wasn't really sharp," said Chicago skipper Lou Piniella in assessing Diamond's outing. "I expected him to pitch better. St. Louis is a good ballclub and they have a good lineup, but he just wasn't sharp."
A more positive outcome for the Cubs was Derrek Lee's night at the plate in his first action since August 8. The first baseman, who had been on the bereavement list to attend to his ill grandfather, had a solo homer and a double in four at-bats.
The Cubs could be in for a tough time again today, considering how well Carpenter has performed over the past month. The All-Star hurler has amassed a 4-0 record along with a sensational 1.79 earned run average in six starts following the All-Star break, and the Cardinals have prevailed in every one of those contests.
Carpenter's worst performance during his unbeaten stretch actually took place against the Cubs, though it was hardly a bad outing. In a July 25 clash at Wrigley Field, the standout righty worked seven innings and allowed three runs in a no-decision.
The 2005 NL Cy Young Award recipient followed up with eight shutout innings in a July 30 matchup with Pittsburgh and won his subsequent two starts, including Monday's 7-3 triumph over the rival Reds in which he yielded just two runs and five hits over seven sharp innings.
Carpenter was also involved in the following night's win over the Reds, though not as a game participant. He was one of the more prominent figures in a nasty benches-clearing incident between the two teams during the first inning, which drew the veteran pitcher an undisclosed fine from the Major League office.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa received a two-game suspension as a result of the fracas and began serving the penalty last night. The longtime skipper will sit out today's contest as well.
Carpenter will be attempting to improve upon an already-strong 10-3 record and 2.79 ERA over 19 lifetime starts against Chicago, as well as his impressive 9-2 mark and 2.75 ERA at home this season.
Carlos Zambrano will handle pitching duties for the Cubs this afternoon in the fallen star's second start since returning to the team's rotation. The controversial right-hander was notably rusty in Monday's outing at San Francisco, issuing seven walks in a laborious five-inning stint. He still managed to hold the Giants to two runs and did not receive a decision in a 4-3 Chicago loss.
The start was Zambrano's first since a June 25 defeat to the White Sox in which the fiery Venezuelan threw a well-publicized dugout tirade after allowing four runs in the opening inning. The Cubs suspended him a month for those actions, with the three-time All-Star making three relief appearances prior to Monday's start upon being reinstated.
Zambrano does own a 10-6 record with a 3.50 ERA over 27 career games (24 starts) versus St. Louis, and is 4-0 with a splendid 1.62 ERA in five overall trips to the Busch Stadium mound. He has not faced the Cards as a starter yet this season, but threw 1 2/3 scoreless innings in two relief appearances against them back in May.
With Friday's win, St. Louis has now taken four of its seven meetings with Chicago this season and is 8-2 against the Cubs at Busch Stadium since the start of the 2009 campaign.