Inside The Ivy: Cubs vs. Houston Astros

CHICAGO - The Chicago Cubs (41-34) and Houston Astros (39-36) both figured to be fighting for first place in the National League Central at this point in the season but are instead looking up in the division to the red-hot St. Louis Cardinals.

This is a different Astros team than the one the Cubs saw two weeks ago. Houston traded for one of the best young outfielders in baseball last week in Carlos Beltran (.278 BA, 15 HR, 51 RBI, 14 SB), a former switch-hitting Kansas City Royals outfielder and tremendous five-tool talent. The Astros also traded outfielder Richard Hidalgo to the New York Mets recently in exchange for right-handed setup man David Weathers to upgrade the bullpen. When the Cubs last saw these Astros, Octavio Dotel was the Houston closer. But Dotel was traded as part of the 3-way deal between the Astros, Royals and Oakland A's that involved himself, Beltran and prospects. As of right now, Brad Lidge is taking over the closing duties for the Astros but it has yet to be seen how well he will respond to the role.

The Astros will have quite possibly have their three best starting pitchers going in this series with Andy Pettitte just returning off the disabled list in addition to the great Roger Clemens and right-hander Wade Miller. Meanwhile, the Cubs looked flat over the weekend at U.S. Cellular Field against the crosstown rival White Sox. On a positive note, Corey Patterson is swinging the bat better than at any point this season, and it seems as though the Cubs' starting center fielder is finally getting back on track from a season-ending torn ACL injury a year ago. Patterson's batting average is up to .281, and in the last six games, he is 10-for-23 for a .435 batting average.

Here is a look at the probable starters for this week's series.

Tuesday, June 29, 7:05 CT: Glendon Rusch (4-1, 4.15 ERA) vs. Andy Pettitte (4-1, 3.38 ERA) - WGN

Glendon Rusch has had two starts against the Astros already this season, going 1-0 with a 3.46 ERA in those two starts. On June 17 at Houston, Rusch was absolutely brilliant against Roy Oswalt, going eight innings and allowing only two runs to get the win. Another solid outing from Rusch would strengthen his chances at keeping a job with the Cubs in either the bullpen or as a spot starter when Kerry Wood returns from injury.

Andy Pettitte will make his first start since May 26 against the Cubs. The veteran lefty had been plagued with a strained left forearm. Pettitte held hitters to a minuscule .200 batting average before his DL stint.

Wednesday, June 30, 1:20 CT: Matt Clement (7-6, 2.98 ERA) vs. Roger Clemens (10-2, 2.73 ERA) - ESPN

Matt Clement has been in control of Craig Biggio throughout his career, an accomplishment that very few pitchers can stake claim to. The Astros' starting center fielder and leadoff hitter is only 2-for-24 against Clement in his career. The Cub right-hander has been victimized by a lack of run support recently and has allowed only three earned runs in his last 14 innings pitched, taking the loss in both games.

The Cubs crushed future of hall of famer Roger Clemens when he last faced them at Minute Maid Park earlier this month. Clemens is 1-1 against the Cubs, but was handed his first loss of the season on June 14 when the North siders scored five runs and racked up 10 hits in six innings. Todd Walker was a huge part of the success in that outing, homering twice and finishing just a double shy of the cycle. Walker is 14-for-34 (.412) lifetime against Clemens.

Thursday, July 1, 1:20 CT: Mark Prior (2-1, 3.28 ERA) vs. Wade Miller (7-7, 3.35 ERA) - WGN

Mark Prior last faced the Astros in that aformentioned contest on June 14 when he beat Clemens and the Astros in a scoreless five-inning effort at Minute Maid Park. Prior last managed to hold the White Sox to just a run on two hits over five innings this past Friday at U.S. Cellular Field to earn his second victory of the season.

Wade Miller has allowed only two earned runs in his last 24.2 innings, spanning four starts. On June 15 against the Cubs, Miller surrendered one run over 6.1 innings but received a no-decision in a game the Cubs would go on to win.

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