Series Preview: Cubs vs. Cardinals - Apparently the Battle for Everything
What do you think ... too stiff?
So. The Cubs are in a tailspin. They've been playing mediocre-at-best on the road. They are a scant 2.5 games ahead of the shockingly second-place Cardinals. While trying to pull out of their tailspin, the Cubs are playing on the road the team they're barely ahead of in the standings.
Man, to be a panic-button installer right now. I'd be on-call 24-7 in the Chicagoland area, and I'd be able to charge double time because it's the 4th of July. Instead, I'm some schmuck living in the wrong country with no panic-button business in sight, and I'm putting out proverbial fires on this blog because I do not believe that there's anything worth panicking about at this time.
Actually, if I'd had more foresight, I would have become a sports psychologist, opened shop in Wrigleyville, and offered my services to the millions of Cub fans who, as they age, progress through a variety of issues that naturally accompany supporting a team with as ridiculous a history of losing as the Cubs. Woof, that was a whopper of a sentence.
The Pitching Match-Ups
Friday, July 4th Carlos Zambrano vs. Braden Looper
Braden Looper? Wasn't this guy a mediocre closer? How do mediocre closers become effective starting pitchers? It just doesn't make sense! Last year, Looper started for the first time in his career. He went 12-12 with a near-5 ERA. This season, The Loop is 9-5 with a 4.26 ERA. The good news for the Cubs is that he's better on the road - he's 4-3 with a 4.50 ERA at home. The bad news for the Cubs is that he's pitching the season of his life, and he's facing a Cubs ace who may or may not be at 100%.
Carlos Zambrano gave us quite the scare a few weeks ago. His shoulder, having grown up in Socialist Venezuela, attempted briefly to revolt against its master. Thankfully, Carlos rules his body with an iron fist. He put down the revolution and has resumed a policy of Total Domination on his pitching arm.
But in all seriousness, we have to look at this from two perspectives. First - the Cubs probably wouldn't pitch Zambrano if they thought he has an injury that could be aggravated. Having just signed an epic contract, it makes little sense to risk a serious injury in Year One of that contract. That said, with his job on the line, Jim Hendry just might roll the dice once more and hope that proper mechanics might save the day ... coupled with the fact that Zambrano could have a knife sticking into his forearm and he'd still want to pitch.
The Moose has often risen to the occasion against the Cardinals. He may only go 5 or 6, he may appear to flip his lid from time to time, but I suspect that he'll get by today.
Saturday, July 5th Ted Lilly vs. Kyle Lohse
Talking about the season of his life! Lohse is pitching a full run below his career ERA at the age of 29. He's 10-2 and he's one of the reasons St. Louis has been so hard to beat, particularly at home - he's 5-1 with a 2.77 ERA.
Ted Lilly has been decent but not outstanding this year. After having gone 4-0 with an ERA of 4.72 in May, Lilly went 4-1 with an ERA of 3.02 in June. He is now on pace to win 17 games, and his ERA is 4.19 on the road this season.
Sunday, July 6th Sean Marshall vs. Todd Wellemeyer
And continuing the run of converted relievers is Todd Wellemeyer, ex Cub, who went 3-1 with a 3.65 ERA in 11 starts in 2007. So far in '08, Wellemeyer is 7-3 with a 3.86 ERA, although that ERA is 4.77 at home.
He will be facing Sean Marshall, who has struggled so far this year in the majors. Marshall's weaknesses were exploited in his last start, but he has shown that he can pitch well.
Actually, while I was writing this article, I realized that St. Louis very strongly reminds me of another team from about 13 years ago. This other team shocked the baseball world with a hot start early in the season, and they did it on the strength of three starting pitchers with unlikely early success. That team was the '95 Cubs; those pitchers were Frank Castillo, Kevin Foster, and Jim Bullinger. All three started well but eventually faded, and while the '95 Cubs came close to a Wild Card berth, they couldn't maintain their early pace as the season wore on and Castillo, Foster, and Bullinger realized that they were average at best.
Of course, the Cardinals of '08 are overall superior to those '95 Cubs, and they've done better for longer in the season. However, if your three winningest starters have paved career paths of mediocrity up until this very season, then it seems pretty damned unlikely that they will continue to work their magic all year long.
Sooner or later, it will catch up with them.
Maybe it'll be sooner. Maybe it'll be now.