Soriano Continues to Power Cubs

If there's any one key to the Cubs' second-half surge, manager Lou Piniella believes it's been the return of left fielder Alfonso Soriano to the lineup.

Since Soriano came off the disabled list July 23, the Cubs are 18-6, including Sunday's 9-2 victory over the Marlins, in which Soriano tied the score at 2-2 in the seventh with a two-run double, sparking an eight-run inning.

Soriano spent six weeks on the disabled list with a broken left hand, suffered June 11. His return added life to a Cubs offense that was beginning to struggle at midseason.

"I thought when we were on the Houston-Arizona trip (right after the break), we were really starting to show the strains of no Soriano in our lineup," Lou said. "We needed to get Alfonso back in the lineup, and it came at the right time for us. It showed. He came back at the right time. It's so much easier just writing his name in the lineup in the one-hole and working your lineup after three and four and then working the other pieces, as opposed to worrying who our leadoff hitter is."

On top of it, the Cubs haven't heard much talk lately of Soriano not being an "ideal" leadoff hitter.

"This kid here is a game-changer when he's on," Piniella said. "Everybody was questioning whether he should hit first or whatever. You can see that's where he belongs."

INSIDE EDGE: RHP Carlos Zambrano has been dropping his "arm slot" of late, and that always sounds the sirens and alarm bells that something is physically wrong with the Cubs' nominal ace.

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild says there's nothing at all wrong with Zambrano that a little slowing down on the mound won't fix. According to both Rothschild and manager Lou Piniella, Zambrano has a tendency to rush his delivery, especially with men on base. That causes his arm slot to drop, and he loses command when that happens. Between starts, Rothschild will get Zambrano to work on slowing down and getting on top of the ball in hopes that will lead to quality pitches in the strike zone.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Catchers Geovany Soto and Henry Blanco have combined to throw out 23 of 84 attempted basestealers. The 27.4 percent rate ranked ninth in the majors. Last year, Cubs catchers ranked 29th, at 11.5 percent.

--3B Aramis Ramirez returned to the lineup Sunday after missing two starts because of a bruised left hip. Ramirez has 83 RBIs, the only Cubs player with at least 80.

--RH reliever Jeff Samardzija struck out the only batter he faced, running his scoreless-innings streak to 10, dating to Aug. 1. RHP Carlos Marmol has a scoreless streak of 15 innings dating to the All-Star break.

--Derrek Lee's single in Saturday night's game was the 1,500th hit of his major league career.

--RHP Ryan Dempster improved to 14-5 with a 2.92 ERA. He is one victory shy of his career best, set in 2001 while with Florida. "Pretty impressive," is how manager Lou Piniella described Dempster's season so far. "I'll tell you this: His stuff right now is as good as it was earlier in the year. That's saying a lot."

--CF Reed Johnson tied his single-game career high with four hits. Johnson doubled twice and singled twice, driving in three and extending his hitting streak to five games.


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