El Duque ready for stern test vs. Big Z

El Duque ready for stern test vs. Big Z

Plenty has happened since the last time the Mets saw the Cubs.

First, the Cubs hit rock bottom. Mired in a spring slump that didn't justify their liberal offseason spending -- a slump to which the Mets contributed first-hand, rallying for five runs in the ninth inning of a series-clinching win in May -- the Cubs watched as they fell even further behind the Brewers in the National League Central.

Not two weeks later, they watched again as their ace pitcher, Carlos Zambrano, and their fiery catcher, Michael Barrett, came to blows in the dugout. Things, to say the least, were not going well.

Flash forward two months, and the Cubs are back in first place. Barrett's long since been traded away, and Zambrano has reclaimed his place as one of the league's top pitchers. And things, to say the least, are markedly better, with manager Lou Piniella leading the way.

"Lou usually gets the most out of his players," said Mets manager Willie Randolph, "but I'm a little surprised because they were having some problems early in the season. Obviously, he did something to get them playing with confidence. They're probably different from the team we saw in New York."

The results are slowly trickling in for Piniella in his first year in Chicago, despite the rocky start. And for every knock he's earned along the way -- foremost being the inability to dominate a weak division with an inflated payroll -- he's also earned a modicum of admiration.

"Best manager I ever played for ... and I've played for my share," said Aaron Sele, who spent two years under Piniella's guidance in Seattle. "He always put players in situations where they could succeed. You know he wouldn't send up a lefty to face Randy Johnson just to get another guy a day off. That's why he succeeds. We were loaded for the two years I was there. And the guys appreciated how they were used."

Zambrano has been used as often as possible, and has flourished -- perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not -- since the Cubs sent Barrett packing. He's allowed just two runs in four starts since the All-Star break, and is leading the Majors with 14 wins.

Countering for the Mets will be Orlando Hernandez, in the midst of one of the finest seasons of his career -- and his second half has thus far been better than his first. While an extended trip to the disabled list left him unable to match Zambrano's gaudy win total, he's still posted a 2.42 ERA since the break and remains on pace for the lowest ERA in his nine-year career.

El Duque hasn't had much success at Wrigley Field, but neither have most Mets while losing nine of 12 in Chicago over the past four years. Last year, they won their first series at Wrigley since 2002.

None of that has diluted their fondness for the park's history.

"I love it," Randolph said. "It has that old ballpark flavor I like. You can smell the hot dogs, the popcorn. You play there, it feels like a ballpark."

Pitching matchup
NYM: RHP Orlando Hernandez (7-4, 3.02 ERA)
The Mets have lost just once over El Duque's last seven outings, and that one loss is now a full month old. He's faced the Cubs just once in his career, when he was pounded for five runs last July and didn't make it out of the second inning -- in a game, miraculously, that the Mets eventually won.

CHC: RHP Carlos Zambrano (14-7, 3.47 ERA)
July proved why Zambrano is among the top pitchers in the game, as the Cubs ace is a perfect 4-0 with a 0.71 ERA in four starts since the All-Star break. And the Mets are no strangers to his dominance. In a start at Shea Stadium in May, he limited them to one run in eight innings of a 10-1 blowout.

Player to watch
El Duque hasn't been able to fool former Yankees teammate Alfonso Soriano since they parted ways. In 12 career meetings, Soriano has five hits, including three doubles and a homer. He's also threatening to hit .300 this season for the first time since 2002.

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Up next
• Saturday: Mets (John Maine, 12-5, 2.92) at Cubs (Ted Lilly, 11-5, 3.60), 3:55 p.m. ET
• Sunday: Mets (Tom Glavine, 9-6, 4.38) at Cubs (Jason Marquis, 8-6, 4.22), 8:05 p.m. ET
• Monday: Off-day

Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.