MIAMI—After Ryan Dempster earned his 14th victory by beating Florida 9-2 on Sunday, manager Lou Piniella said the Cubs knew coming into spring training that he'd make the starting rotation.
So much for the three-way competition for two spots among Dempster, Jason Marquis and Jon Lieber, which lasted throughout camp. Did Dempster know he was a lock?
"Even in spring training, if you just do what you've got to do and get your work in, things play themselves out. And they tend to work out the way you want them to if you work hard. I'm just going to keep getting after it and try to do something special here in Chicago and get us to the playoffs."
The Cubs' chances of making the postseason look pretty good, thanks in no small part to Dempster's dominance and a quick-strike offense. They scored eight runs in the seventh inning, capturing their sixth straight series and ending the trip 5-1.
"That's what we need to do," Piniella said. "Winning series is what we're shooting for."
The Cubs have won 18 of 24 games since Alfonso Soriano returned from the disabled list on July 23. They begin a six-game homestand against Cincinnati and Washington on Tuesday with a 51/2-game lead in the Central Division.
"We really haven't played too well on the road, and now that we're starting to pick things up, it's helping us out quite a bit," outfielder Reed Johnson said.
Johnson tied a career high with four hits, including a single and a three-run double in the big seventh inning. The Cubs had three bases-loaded doubles in the inning — from Johnson, Soriano and Aramis Ramirez — after looking lifeless through the first six.
"Three bases-loaded doubles," Piniella said. "You don't see that too often in an inning."
Dempster improved to 14-5, one win shy of his career high, striking out 10 and allowing two runs on five hits over six innings. He has allowed two or fewer earned runs in each of his last six starts and in 18 of his 26 starts this season. He leads the league in opponents' batting average (.210) and is third in wins behind Arizona's Brandon Webb (18), Colorado's Aaron Cook (15) and Cincinnati's Edinson Volquez (15).
While Webb appears to be the favorite to win a second Cy Young Award, Dempster is in the picture.
"If he puts a couple more wins on the board quickly, I think you'll start hearing whispers," Piniella said.
Dempster said he dreamed about having a season like this but wanted no part of Cy Young talk. "There's a lot more guys ahead of me," he said. "I just worry about making my starts."
After Dempster gave up an RBI double to Luis Gonzalez in the sixth to give the Marlins a 2-0 lead, he was in jeopardy of not finishing the inning. But Piniella kept him in, and after Jorge Cantu singled, Dempster struck out the next two hitters before intentionally walking Jeremy Hermida to load the bases and retiring Cody Ross on a flyout.
"It was a grind, mentally and physically, to bear down and make pitches," Dempster said. "I just felt deep down inside that if I could keep them from scoring any more runs, we'd have a chance to come back and win it.
"It was definitely a nice victory, a nice win for us."