Defending First Place: Cubs vs. Astros Preview, Monday 7/27, 7:05 CT

The Cubs inhabit first place by themselves today for the first time in 2009. And, the schedule, for once, seems to favor them -- they'll play the Astros at home, while the Cardinals host the team with the NL's best record, the Dodgers, who St. Louis has not yet faced this year. LA has the 2nd-best road record in baseball. Only the Phillies have been better away from home. Meanwhile, the Brewers, now in fourth place, host the Nationals -- that might be a get-well potion for them.

So, there's a real chance that the Cubs could extend the lead -- especially since Houston is outplaying its Pythagorean win projection by four games, a fairly large number at this stage of the season. They're 50-48 despite being outscored by 28 runs. Such a differential is rarely sustainable; the most recent example of this was the 2005 Washington Nationals, who were 55-44 and in first place on July 24, 2005, despite being outscored by 20 runs on that date. They finished at .500.

Koyie Hill may not be hitting, but he's been playing excellent defense and calling good games for his pitchers and truly enjoying his time in the spotlight:

"It's a ton of fun and I'm having a blast," Hill said. "I come to the ballpark every day excited I get to play baseball."

Good for him, and good for the Cubs, although they could probably use another "real" catcher if Geovany Soto is going to be out for any extended length of time. The triple Hill hit yesterday was the first of his career. The Cubs are 22-13 in games Hill has started this year.

Today's Starting Pitchers
Carlos Zambrano
Carlos Zambrano
Cubs
vs. Wandy Rodriguez
Wandy Rodriguez
Astros
7-4 W-L 10-6
3.48 ERA 2.72
95 SO 117
50 BB 42
7 HR 13
vs. Hou -- vs. Cubs

W-L G GS CG SHO SV BS IP H R ER HR BB K ERA WHIP
2009 - Carlos Zambrano 7-4 24 18 0 0 0 0 113.2 104 49 44 7 50 95 3.48 1.35


W-L G GS CG SHO SV BS IP H R ER HR BB K ERA WHIP
2009 - Wandy Rodriguez 10-6 21 20 1 1 0 0 125.2 113 45 38 13 42 117 2.72 1.23

Soft-tossing lefty Wandy Rodriguez usually drives Cubs hitters nuts. He has pitched twice against them already this year, getting two no-decisions in games the Astros won. One of those was against Carlos Zambrano on June 10 in Houston; Z threw eight good innings but Angel Guzman lost the game in the 9th. Derrek Lee (12-for-27, .444, 3 doubles, 2 HR) and Ryan Theriot (10-for-21, .476, 4 doubles, 1 HR) hit him well.

Z also has two good outings vs. Houston this year -- the June 10 game linked above and six one-run innings in a 4-2 Cubs win at Wrigley Field on April 6. Carlos Lee is still Z's nemesis: 19-for-52 (.365), 5 doubles, 4 HR. Z won't get to face Lance Berkman, who is on the DL.

Cable-only today in Chicago and Houston, and on EI and MLB.TV. For other games today see the MLB.com Mediacenter.

MLB.com Gameday

Baseball-reference.com game preview

SB Nation game preview

Please visit our SB Nation Astros site The Crawfish Boxes.

Overflow comment threads will post today at 8 pm, 9 pm and 9:45 pm CDT.

Discuss amongst yourselves.

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