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Coming off one of his best games in the major leagues, the Chicago Cubs outfielder will try to add to his strong start in Friday night's opener of a three-game series in Milwaukee.
After starring for nine seasons with Japan's Chunichi Dragons, Fukudome signed a four-year, $48 million contract in December 2007 with the Cubs. In the 2008 season opener at Wrigley Field, he went 3-for-3 and hit a tying three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth of an eventual extra-inning defeat to the Brewers.
Fukudome was hitting .327 at the end of last April, but his average dropped in each subsequent month. After batting .178 in September, he finished at .257 and went 1-for-10 in Chicago's NL division series loss to Los Angeles.
That decline prompted Chicago manager Lou Piniella to start this season platooning Fukudome with Reed Johnson in center field. After going 0-for-4 in Monday' night's season-opening win and appearing as a defensive replacement the following night, Fukudome helped the Cubs (2-1) to a series-deciding 11-6 victory Wednesday night, finishing 4-for-5 with a double, a homer and a career-best four runs scored.
"We had every confidence that he would revert back to what he did in the first half of last year," Piniella told the team's official Web site. "I said I'd play him in center field and put him in the two hole in the lineup, and he's responding. The credit goes to him. I felt all along that this year would be much different."
Fukudome was at his best last season against the Brewers, hitting .383 with three home runs and 10 RBIs.
The Cubs will need all the production they can get, given the uncertain status of catcher Geovany Soto. The 2008 rookie of the year, who hit .285 with 23 home runs and 86 RBIs, sat out Wednesday's game with right shoulder soreness and is expected to miss the first two games of this weekend's series.
Another one of Chicago's touted major acquisitions from last season, Rich Harden, is slated to make his 2009 debut. Acquired from Oakland in a six-player deal in July, the right-hander went 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA in 12 starts after joining the Cubs.
He allowed two runs in two starts against the Brewers, including a key win during a four-game sweep in Milwaukee in late July.
Milwaukee (1-2) will counter with Braden Looper (12-14, 4.16 ERA in 2008), signed from St. Louis in February after winning 12 games for the second consecutive season.
The right-hander is 3-6 with a 2.61 ERA in 40 career appearances - eight starts - versus the Cubs, but has lost his last four decisions to them including three last season.
The Brewers lost 7-1 Thursday night in San Francisco, but the result was overshadowed by a ninth-inning incident in which Milwaukee's Mike Cameron hit Giants reliever Joe Martinez in the head with a line drive. Martinez walked off under his own power with his forehead cut and his right eye swollen, and was taken to a hospital for a CT scan and evaluation.
"You just hope that the young man is all right, that everything is good and that he's safe first and foremost," said Cameron, who finished 2-for-3. "I just hope that he gets a chance to go back on the field again."
The Cubs went 5-2 in Milwaukee in 2008, and won the overall season series 9-7.