Ryan Dempster got used to pitching in heavy humidity in Florida early in his career, while Rich Harden grew accustomed to pitching in cool, dry weather during his days in Oakland.
So perhaps it was a good omen that the hot, sticky weather Dempster endured Saturday preceded a cool afternoon Sunday as Harden took the mound against Washington.
Maybe someone up there really does like the Cubs.
Harden did his usual thing, pitching seven solid innings in a 6-1 victory over the Nationals as the Cubs captured their eighth straight series and remained 41/2 games ahead of Milwaukee.
"Man, it was a beautiful day, compared to [Saturday], with the heat and humidity," Harden said. "[Dempster] said that was worse than pitching in Florida during the day. It was perfect conditions today. The wind kept blowing in a little bit too. It was a good day to pitch."
Harden allowed one run on two hits, tying a career high with 11 strikeouts in the latest of a series of dominant outings. It was his fifth double-digit-strikeout game as a Cub. He had only two for the A's the previous 51/2 seasons.
"Every time he goes out there he gives you a consistent effort," manager Lou Piniella said. "I think he's had one start where he's given up runs. Outside of that, he goes into the sixth or seventh inning, depending on the pitch count, and gives you a chance to win a ballgame."
The Cubs improved to 80-50, the best record in the majors after Tampa Bay's loss to the White Sox. They've won 22 of their last 30 games and have held opponents to two or fewer runs in 10 of their last 13.
Harden got an early lead to work with when the Cubs scored three runs off right-hander Jason Bergmann in the second inning. An opposite-field solo home run by Mark DeRosa, his fourth straight game with a homer, was followed by a two-run shot by Geovany Soto into the teeth of a stiff wind.
The Cubs added three more in the seventh, highlighted by a two-run pinch-homer by Kosuke Fukudome.
Harden was practically unhittable, as he has been for the last three starts. In that span he has allowed one run on six hits over 19 innings, with 23 strikeouts and a 0.47 ERA. After Austin Kearns hit a solo shot in the third, Harden allowed only one more single the rest of the way, pitching to the minimum three batters in five of his seven innings and striking out the final three men he faced. He issued no walks for the second straight outing.
"He had really good stuff," Soto said. "His changeup was down, and it seemed like his fastball was overpowering."
Cubs starters have a league-leading 3.70 ERA, with Harden, Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly leading the charge. It may be the strongest rotation the Cubs have had in decades, with four pitchers who could be considered an ace on some teams.
The Cubs finished the homestand 4-2 and headed to Pittsburgh for a three-game trip. The last time they won eight consecutive series was from May 28-June 24, 1937.
"We're playing good baseball, but again, we've just got to keep going," Piniella said. "We can't sit."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun