Cubs-Mets preview

NEW YORK — A sweep of the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series last fall sent the New York Mets to the World Series for the first time in 15 seasons. But the Cubs are the team that looks ready to return to the NLCS — and perhaps end a far longer drought — as the two teams prepare for a four-game series that begins Thursday night at Citi Field.

The Cubs arrived in New York fresh off a 9-2 win over the Cincinnati Reds that capped a three-game sweep at Great American Ball Park. The sweep snapped the longest skid of the season for Chicago, which lost six of seven prior to facing the Reds.

“This was a good series for us,” said Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who hit a three-run inside-the-park homer Wednesday.

The Cubs have had a lot of good series this year. Chicago, which is looking to reach the World Series for the first time since 1945 and win it all for the first time since 1908, is now a baseball-best 51-26, with a mammoth run differential — plus-170 — that suggests ot should have five or six more wins.

The Mets, meanwhile, continued to spiral downward Wednesday with a 4-2 loss to the Washington Nationals. The loss capped a three-game sweep at the hands of the Nationals, who extended their lead over the Mets from three to six games.

The loss ended a 2-5 road trip for the Mets, who were outscored 35-20 by the Nationals and Atlanta Braves. New York, which blew an early 4-0 lead in Monday's opener against the Nationals, went 23 straight innings without scoring until James Loney hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning Wednesday.

“We're just not giving ourselves chances,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “We just can't give our pitchers any room to work.”

At 40-37, New York is the closest it has been to .500 since April 24, though it is still only a half-game behind the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals in the race for the NL's second wild card.

“They're struggling lately and they're banged up,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “It is different (than last year) for both teams.”

The series opener Thursday begins an 11-game homestand for the Mets that could dictate the direction the rest of their season takes. After the Cubs exit Sunday, the Mets host the Marlins for three games and the Nationals for four games.

“We've still got 11 before the All-Star Break,” Collins said. “We've just got to go play them.”

Mets left-hander Steven Matz is scheduled to start Thursday against Cubs right-hander John Lackey. Matz is pitching through a bone chip in his right elbow and got an extra day of rest after struggling last Friday, when he was staked to an eight-run lead but allowed six runs over 4 1/3 innings and was lifted before he could qualify for the win in the Mets' 8-6 victory over the Braves.

Lackey will be looking to bounce back from his worst start of the season. He took the loss last Saturday, when he gave up seven runs over 4 1/3 innings as the Cubs fell to the Marlins, 9-6.