Sorry Cub fans, but apparently our team won't be winning every single game from now until the playoffs. It appears that even at Wrigley Field, the Cubs will lose from time to time.
Ted Lilly lost for only the 4th time since his terrible start to the season, although he pitched well. Lilly went 7 innings, and gave up only 2 hits and 2 walks while allowing 2 earned runs and striking out 7. His ERA is down to 4.25 after this game, and I remain confident that he'll someday settle south of 4 on the season.
Offensively, while the Cubs walked 5 times, they only managed 3 hits and 1 run. (Somewhere, Dusty is shouting "see! I told you so!")
Alfonso Soriano allegedly cost the Cubs the game by failing to catch a flyball. There are a few insane Cub fans out there calling for the Fonz to be benched for Scrappy White Player Reed Johnson, but as previously mentioned, those fans are nutso.
The thing about Soriano is this - yes, his defensive miscues are always concerning. He sometimes loses focus on the bases and gets picked off. But for now, his pure talent surpasses his few flaws, and while he may be a stupid baseball player, he's not a selfish one. Perhaps someday, when his talent can no longer cover his flaws, the Fonz will be hated, but until that day comes, he's a hugely valuable asset.
The Cubs play the rubber game tonight. Carlos Zambrano has reportedly been working himself into a red rage for the last two days in preparation for this outing. He needs a win.
Thank you again, Dusty Baker. Thank you for insisting on using Corey Patterson and Paul Bako with regularity. (My personal theory is that you keep them - and other ex-Cubs and Giants - on the team so that, before games, they can encircle you and wistfully reminisce about the good ol' days, when you used to win.) Thank you for you stubborn belief that walks clog the bases, on account of how it's called hittin', not walkin'. Thank you for your apparent lack of concern regarding things like scouting, splits, and match-ups. Thank you, but I'm still beyond angry that the Cubs wasted three years of my life by insisting that you were somehow a competent manager.
Baseball has got to be the most philosophical of all the major sports. You don't often hear about a football coach starting a player based on a "gut feeling." But, in baseball above all others, there remains not just a fine line between managing with statistics and guts, but there still exists a flat-out resistance to trusting numbers over antiquated human intuition. On this blog, we tend to walk the line. We've got Colin, who uses numbers very wisely and well, and then we've got ... well, the rest of us, who spend half our time with our fingers in our ears and our eyes closed, shouting "not listening! not listening! not listening! la la la la!" and the other half of the time saying "ooooh, math! la la la la!"
To be fair, as valuable as they really are, I insist on arguing that there is a point where pure numbers aren't enough. For example if we relied on statistics alone, then without a moment's doubt, you want the guy with these numbers to be your closer: 33.1 IP, 33 Hits, 6 BB, 5 ER, 25 K, 1.18 WHIP, 1.35 ERA. Only there exists a mental side to the game. Maybe it's more obviously there in baseball, where a guy has 162 games to succeed or fail, as compared with football where he plays 16, or even basketball and hockey where they play 82 times. Regardless, that guy with those numbers, let's just call him LaTroy Hawkins.2004, it turns out that he doesn't want to be a closer. It turns out that the mental aspect of the game, the mind-blowing pressure of getting the last three outs with no room for error can be too much for a guy like LaTroy. But I digress - the vast majority of the time, you want that guy with the 1.35 ERA as your top reliever.*
(*Only some people might argue that you want your top reliever setting up the closer. Baseball can really make a body dizzy, eh?)
In Dusty Baker's world, baseball is heavy on the gut and light on the brain. Dusty's gut tells him that you put your center fielder at lead off, your second baseman in the #2 spot, and your best hitter in the #3 spot. Okay, maybe your center fielder walks about as much as your crippled grandfather, but so long as he's speedy, he bats leadoff. If it was good enough for that team Dusty once played for along with HANK AARON, then it's good enough for that team that Dusty Baker manages. Consequently, in a world where every stat is increasingly weighed more heavily, and in a league in which every smart manager looks for all possible advantages, Dusty gets left behind in the ... well, in the dust. In other, fewer words, Advantage Cubs.
Advantage Cubs, not that Rich Harden needed it. When Harden is zeroed in like tonight, no team in baseball is going to get much going against him. In this case, Harden went 7 innings, he gave up 2 hits, and he walked - shocker - 0 Reds while striking out 10 of them. The Reds lack of patience, mixed with Harden's lack of control problems, allowed Rich to exit the game having thrown only 94 pitches. The Cubs held only a fragile 1-run lead, but apparently teams that don't work pitching counts tend not to come back from deficits late in games. Consequently, Carlos Marmol pitched another inning of no-hit ball (I believe he is now up to 11.1 straight) and Kerry Wood entered in a no-save situation to finish the Reds Mortal Combat style. (In Lou's - and Wood's - defense, it was a save situation when Woody started warming up in the pen, but the Cubs offense came alive like Frampton in the bottom of the 8th).
Offensively, the Cubs nibbed at the Reds all night long. Cueto didn't do badly keeping them stymied; he only gave up 4 hits and walked 2 in 7 innings - and 111 pitches - of work. Yet, hardly an inning went by where Cueto wasn't in trouble. The Cubs had 2 runners on in the 2nd, Mark DeRosa hit a leadoff double in the 3rd, Ryan Theriot hit a leadoff double in the 4th, Geovany Soto hit a leadoff triple in the 5th, and the only time the Cubs turned an opportunity into a run was when Harden bunted Soto home.
Point of fact, Harden's bunt and Soto's score was awesome. Geovany played some great heads up baseball tonight. His triple happened because of a lot of hustle and smart base running, and he scored off the bunt because he very effectively shadowed Edwin Encarnacion at third, making a speedy charge for the plate after Harden's bunt was scooped and tossed to first. More impressive still, Kosuke Fukudome, who'd walked earlier that inning, wound up on third base from first while Soto slid home. Contrast that with Alfonso Soriano, who was picked off at first for the second time in a week. The Cubs aren't as bad at base-running as they were in Dusty's day, and in fact they are clearly fundamentally sound enough to make things happen, but the Fonz needs to keep his head in the game. Repeated pick-offs reak of loss of focus.
It looked as though it was meant to be a close game until the 8th, when the Cubs busted it open. Derrek, Aramis, and Kosuke all drove in runs while railing on Lincoln and Bray. All told, the Cubs scored 5 on 8 hits and 3 walks, and they are now 29 games over .500. But, best of all, both Milwaukee and St. Louis lost tonight, putting the Cubs 6 and 8.5 games ahead. Chicago is now tied with Tampa for the best record in all of baseball.
Two years ago this month, Cubs fans were in misery. Despite a gut-wrenching end to the '04 season and in spite of a depressing '05 season, Jim Hendry had insisted on letting Dusty Baker play through his contract with the Cubs. Well before August 19th, 2006 rolled around, Cubs fans had known that it was a hopeless, futile cause.
On that day in that season, the Cubs beat the Cardinals in 10 innings to, uh, improve to 53-69 on the season. Yep, the Cubs were 16 games under .500, and it was about to get a lot worse. Apparently satisfied with their late-inning triumph, the team proceeded to flop over and die. They'd lose 18 of their next 21. That's right, they'd go 3-18 following that win. Kind of makes you wonder how in the hell Carlos Zambrano had managed to win 16 that year.
"Oh, we suck. We suck mightily, we are flawed and we are very harmless to the rest of the league," lamented Goat Writer Rob in a post on August 17th of that year. "It can be said in some quarters without immediate fear of rousing the Manteno Whitecoats that with the speed and fielding up the gut, the power on the corners, and the surprising level of success of some of the baby pitchers we've been casting out there as bait, that there is Hope for Next Year, given the Right Trades and Free Agent Signings. (Like either or those will ever happen, but bear with me here)." Turns out he was right, even as he expressed his skepticism.
Jim Hendry would somehow keep his job, even while Dusty Baker was chased out of town by angry fans wielding weaponry. I was not alone in expressing tremendous disappointment in Hendry's return. However, driven by the go-get-'em philosophy of a new team president and the never-to-be-underestimated desire to save his own skin, Hendry and the Cubs opened the coffers and proceeded to acquire players who would almost immediately turn the Cubs into contenders. Meanwhile, Dusty - the guy Hendry wouldn't fire - sat behind a desk with ESPN for a season, spouting wisdom that even befuddled certified geniuses like John Kruk. And yet, despite exposing an entire country to his keen baseball mind, Baker managed to land another managing job.
Now, we are taken full circle. Baker has returned to Chicago for the last time this season, and he will be facing a team that is, in many ways, the antithesis of the group of losers he managed. Where Baker favored veterans at the expense of promising rookies, the Cubs are now a team where every player makes meaningful contributions. Where Baker made decisions that baffled, the Cubs now play with precision and order. Most importantly, where Baker brought out the worst in his team and failed to make the slightest positive contribution, the Cubs are now managed by a guy who seems to do everything right.
Dusty Baker, Cubs past, meet Lou Piniella, Cubs present and future. It took Lou a couple of months to fix the mess you left him, but since June 2nd, 2007, the Cubs have gone 139-94, which is the best record of any team in baseball in that time. Meanwhile, in their first season under Baker's leadership, the Reds are whatdoyaknow, 55-70. Pretty much on par for Baker.
Two years ago today, the Cubs - an already bad team - embarked upon a losing streak that was epic, but not unexpected. They narrowly avoided a 100-loss season. This year, the Cubs - an already great team - may very well be on the brink of a winning streak that is epic, but not unexpected. If they do, if they can, then this time they should not fall short of 100.