Originally posted on Pro Sports Daily  |  Last updated 7/8/12

NEW YORK -- The Chicago Cubs peppered Jon Niese with one hit after another Sunday, sending the New York Mets into the All-Star break shaking their heads not at their surprisingly successful first half but about another defeat to a dismal team.

The Cubs entered Sunday tied for the worst record in the major leagues, but their 7-0 victory at Citi Field marked their fourth win in six games against the Mets.

Chicago won eight of its last 12 to close the first half, with young first baseman Anthony Rizzo making an impact since arriving from the minors.

Rizzo didn't make much of a dent Sunday, but the rest of the Cubs did. They smacked Niese for four runs on five hits in the first inning. Just when Niese appeared to settle down, the Cubs added three in the seventh, on All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro's two-out, three-run homer to left.

It was all more than enough for Ryan Dempster (4-3), who returned from the disabled list by throwing five shutout innings to lower his ERA to 1.99.

Dempster, who said his command in the first half "is as good as it's been," gave up four hits while striking out four without walking anyone.

"Yeah, that was more efficient than I thought I would be," Dempster said after throwing 63 pitches in his first start since June 15. "... Another good outing and a good way to end the break."

The Mets didn't end the first half as well as they would have liked, dropping two of three to the Cub. They fell into third place in the NL East, 4 1/2 games behind the first-place Washington Nationals.

While saying his team didn't play well against the Cubs, Mets manager Terry Collins said the overall message for his young, injury-riddled squad after the first half was "we can compete. That has got to be the biggest thing to come out of here, 'Hey, look, we are in the hunt.'

"Irregardless of what happens with all the other teams at the end of today, we've got to start next weekend realizing we're in a fight. And we've gotta get ready."

After Dempster left, the Cubs turned the game over to four relievers, who shut down the Mets the rest of the way. That included a scoreless inning for Paul Maholm, who made his first relief appearance after 201 career starts.

The Mets, who didn't produce more than one base runner in an inning against Dempster, threatened Maholm with singles by Daniel Murphy and David Wright to start the sixth. But Maholm got Ike Davis to pop up to short and induced a double play from Lucas Duda, ending the inning and preserve the Cubs' 4-0 lead.

Dempster's fine start capped his strong first half, but the next few weeks after the break will be littered with trade rumors as contending teams likely could be calling.

"I don't read the paper a whole lot," Dempster said. "... so I don't even notice a lot of the rumors and I just handle whatever I can handle and that's just going out there and doing my job."

Collins again played Jordany Valdespin in the outfield, this time for his first career start in center, in place of slumping center fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Collins hoped Valdespin, who homered in his last two games, could provide another jolt. He singled, but the Mets, who entered the day leading the majors with 187 two-out RBI, did not provide much offense.

"We didn't do anything offensively," Collins said. "Certainly not the at-bats we're used to seeing."

Chicago pounced on Niese (7-4), opening the game with back-to-back singles by Reed Johnson and Castro. One out later, Alfonso Soriano singled in a run for a 1-0 lead. Jeff Baker then doubled in another run before Geovany Soto singled in two more to make it 4-0.

Niese allowed one more hit in the next five innings, but the Cubs sent him off with three more hits in the seventh, including Castro's seventh homer of the season.

"I don't want to go home," Castro said of missing out on the break while going to his second consecutive All-Star Game. "You see the commercials. It's not rest. It's not a break. I want to be in the All-Star Game every year. I've got time to be in my house. October -- rest."

NOTES: After initially planning to start Johan Santana coming out of the All-Star break, Collins said left-hander would be pushed back to at least the third game to rest his left ankle, which Santana twisted Friday night. Dillon Gee will open the second half with R.A. Dickey going second. ... Collins, who is on the NL coaching staff, said he would not lobby NL manager Tony La Russa to start Dickey (12-2) in the All-Star Game, but would tell La Russa he believed Dickey deserved the honor if asked. ... Mets center fielder Andres Torres (back) missed his fourth consecutive game, but should be ready to return after the All-Star break, Collins said. ... Cubs right-hander Chris Volstad was demoted to Class AAA (Des Moines) Iowa to make room for Dempster. Volstad (0-7, 7.94 ERA) has not won a game since last July 10. ... Dempster will not pitch the first game out of the break as initially planned, and will be given an extra day, Cubs manager Dale Sveum said.

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