NEW YORK -- The Cubs aren't sure how long Ryan Dempster will be in the rotation, but they are going to take advantage of him as long as he's around.
Dempster picked up where he left off, throwing five shutout innings to extend his scoreless streak to 27, and All-Star Starlin Castro hit a three-run home run to lift the Cubs to a 7-0 victory Sunday over the Mets. Chicago ended the first half on a positive note, winning nine of its last 13 games.
"Hopefully, this is something to build on going into the second half where you know you can compete with some of the upper-echelon teams in the division," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said.
Geovany Soto added a two-run single in a four-run first to back Dempster (4-3), who had a scoreless-innings streak of 22 prior to going on the disabled list June 16 with a sore right lat. Sunday was his first start back and he now has matched Ken Holtzman's 27-inning scoreless streak in 1971. Holtzman also had a 33-inning streak in '69, the longest by a Cubs pitcher. Dempster scattered four hits and struck out four, lowering his ERA to 1.99.
"That was more efficient than I thought I was going to be," Dempster said. "I just really focused on keeping the ball down as much as I could and hoped that I could get quick outs and was able to do that."
Of course, now that he's back, Dempster will be watched closely by teams looking to add pitching before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. His next start will be Saturday against the D-backs at Wrigley Field. Expect more than a handful of scouts in the crowd.
"You don't replace a 2.00 ERA over how many innings he's got," Sveum said. "That's why people want to trade for those guys."
Dempster just shrugs off the rumors. He was looking forward to taking his kids on vacation this week.
"I don't read the paper a whole lot or watch much TV, and when I do, it's usually 'Swamp People' or things like that," he said. "I don't notice the rumors. I just handle what I can handle, and that's going out there and pitching and doing my job, and wherever the cards fall, that's where they fall."
A free agent at the end of this season, Dempster would be a valuable addition for a team.
"I'm just trying to do the best job I can here for this team, and that's my priority," Dempster said. "You're aware there are needs for every team out there, and right now, the need for our team is to have me in the rotation, and I want to continue to do my job every time my name is called and stay as healthy as I can."
The Cubs sent eight batters to the plate in the first against Jon Niese (7-4), scoring on an RBI single by Alfonso Soriano, an RBI double by Jeff Baker and Soto's opposite-field hit. The 4-0 cushion let Dempster relax.
"It's always nice when you're on deck [to hit] in the first inning," Dempster said. "Any time I get a chance to hit or get close to hitting in the first inning, I like my chances."
"It's just some tough luck there in the first inning," Niese said. "When I had a runner in scoring position, I needed to execute a pitch, and I made mistakes on some pitches and they punished me for it."
Niese did limit the Cubs to one hit over the next five innings until the seventh. Luis Valbuena and Reed Johnson both singled to set up Castro's homer, his seventh. While some of his teammates were headed to LaGuardia Airport to catch a flight to the Dominican Republic, Castro was bound for the All-Star Game in Kansas City.
"I don't want to go home," Castro said. "It's not rest. You've seen the commercials [for the All-Star Game]. 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 in October and rest. Now I don't need it."
Castro does lead all National League shortstops in hits with 100, but he finished the trip 6-for-26. Sveum would like to see the youngster make some adjustments at the plate, especially with his leg kick and timing, but called those "winter projects."
"Right now, he is what he is," Sveum said. "The bat speed and power are there. The pitch selection and timing of that leg kick won't always dictate consistency. He'll get his hits because of his hand-eye coordination. The home runs will come with better pitch selection."
What his teammates have noticed is better focus.
"Obviously, he's not turning around and looking in the outfield [to see] where pitches are going this year, so that's always a good step," Dempster said jokingly, referring to a moment last season when Castro was caught on camera looking away. "He's making his strides and his ability to read the plays. When the pitcher is going inside, he's moving around and he's turning double plays and his range is great and obviously, he can hit. When you're the shortstop, you're the leader of the defense, and he's taken over that role."
Now it's time for the All-Star break. Castro and Bryan LaHair will be the Cubs' representatives in Kansas City.
"You're always ready for a break in this game," Sveum said. "[Four] days off will be nice."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.