Chicago's starting rotation looks improved thus far, helping the Cubs to their first series win to start a season in four years. But the true test of improvement may be in the coming weeks with a challenging schedule on the horizon.
Thirteen of the Chicago's next 19 games are against playoff teams from last year, beginning with Friday night's series opener on the road against the high-powered Atlanta Braves.
The Cubs (2-1) saw starters Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood post a combined 0.95 ERA during their series at Pittsburgh. Though it's just three games, it's significantly better than the 4.52 collective ERA Chicago's starters posted last year, third-worst in the NL.
Chicago hopes new addition Scott Feldman can keep things going as he embarks on his first season in the NL. Feldman went 39-44 with a 4.81 ERA over eight years with Texas before signing a one-year deal with the Cubs this past offseason.
"I'm kind of anxious," Feldman told the team's official website. "Sitting here, watching three games, I want to get that first start under my belt and get off to a good start."
He will start against a Braves lineup that in its first two games looked the part of its offseason acclaim as one baseball's most potent. Atlanta (2-1) plated 16 runs and had 19 hits - including six home runs - before being shut down to the tune of only two singles by Philadelphia's Cliff Lee in a 2-0 loss Thursday.
"They got an early lead and (Lee) went out there, settled in and did what good pitchers do," Jason Heyward told the team's official website.
Left-hander Mike Minor will get the nod for Atlanta, looking to carry the momentum over from a strong finish to last year. Minor was 6-4 with a 2.16 ERA in 14 starts after the All-Star break, though he struggled this spring, amassing a 2-1 record and 6.26 ERA in six starts.
"I feel like I've grown up a lot from last year," Minor told the team's official website. "I have a lot of confidence and I feel good going into the season."
Though Chicago's starting staff would appear to be improved, there is still unrest at the back of the bullpen. Thursday's 3-2 win over the Pirates came despite a shaky performance from Carlos Marmol in the ninth. Marmol allowed both of Pittsburgh's runs before escaping with a game-inning double play. He also gave up a run, a hit and a walk while only working through a third of an inning in Monday's 3-1 win.
But manager Dale Sveum said Marmol will remain the team's closer, at least for now.
"For the most part we know things like that can get interesting with him," Sveum said. "But he got out of it again."
Feldman fared well in his only previous start against Atlanta, limiting the Braves to two runs and five hits over seven innings on June 19, 2008.
Minor has earned the win in each of his four career starts against the Cubs while striking out 30 in 23 innings.
Chicago's Nate Schierholtz, who hit a big two-run homer in the top of the ninth inning Thursday, is 3 for 6 lifetime against Minor.