I think the series coming up in Philly will be a good barometer of what the second half will be for the Cubs.
It's hard to disagree with that. As fun as it's been to see the Cubs trounce the lowly Nationals, a truer test of their talent will be the first place Phillies.
Still, I don't think there's a true Cub fan out there who's actually complaining about the team winning their first series after the break. The Cubs are -- as they have been in the past -- one good weekend away from seizing the division lead, something that many people have doubted possible. And it's even possible -- albeit unlikely -- that the Cubs will be in a position to tie for the lead tomorrow.
Perhaps at last the slumbering bear is coming out of hibernation.
Derrek Lee, Three Finger Hill, Kosuke Fukudome, Alfonso Soriano, Mike Fontenot, Reed Johnson - Since the All Star Break, this group of players have combined to bat .385, feasting on the poor pitching of the Nationals. Considering that Fukudome, Soriano, Fontenot, and Bradley are the current incanation of the Questionable Quartet, we'll take that as a good sign.
Kevin Gregg - In the month of July, 1-0, 0.90 ERA, 5 saves. But he's pitched in the last 3 games, so don't expect to see him today.
Carlos Marmol - Also in July, 0-0, 1.13 ERA, 9 SO in 8 IP. Then again, he's also walked 5.
Milton Bradley, Ryan Theriot, Aramis Ramirez - Ignoring their few-and-far-between big hits, these three hitters are batting .171 since the break. At this point I'm pretty much over Bradley -- wait 'til next year, kid -- but Ramirez is troublesome as he may or may not be of help to the offense with his damaged shoulder.
Hart is an enigma who will give me cold-sweats whenever he faces Dunn. Mock is a first-time starter with a terrible record so far this year. I like the Cubs' chances.
The Cubs looked as if they were going to get hammered in last night's game with the Nationals -- Randy Wells gave up 4 runs in the first 2 innings, and just like any federal government, we all know how rarely the Chicago offense can be relied on to overcome deficits.
But thanks to a Theriot triple and unlikely homeruns from perpetually-slumping Cub players (Soriano and Fontenot) the Cubs were able to overcome their early deficit and turn Wells into the winning pitcher.
More exciting than the come-from-behind, though, was the bullpen. The combined efforts of Guzman, Marshall, Marmol, Heilman, and Gregg managed to hold the Nationals to 1 run over the last 4 innings, despite 3 hits and 5 walks. The defining moment came in the 8th, when Aaron Heilman made an out before he loaded the bases, resulting in Lou calling on his closer. Goggle-Man Gregg stepped in, surrendered a sac fly that was put on Heilman's tab before walking Adam Dunn. Then with two outs, the bases loaded, and a full count Gregg was able to induce an inning-ending ground-out. Woof.
Gregg then returned for the 9th and ended it with 3 easy outs. Hopefully today's game won't be so close, as he threw 29 pitches and probably won't be available to aid the Cubs as they play for a rare 4-game, road trip sweep (even if it's only the Nationals).
As for Wells, yes, today was a cheap win for him. He didn't exactly pitch in a way that earned it. Then again, how many great games did he pitch in which he either received the L or a no-decision?
Oh, and for whatever it's worth, Chicago is now only 2 games out of first place. I'm sure it means nothing.
Randy Wells (4-4, 2.72 ERA) vs. Jordan Zimmermann (3-4, 4.50 ERA)
The Chicago Cubs continue their charge toward second-half glory tonight in a match-up against the Nationals that could result in a series victory. But that's not really the story.
For Cub fans everywhere -- many of whom have already raised the white flag -- it's more a story of continuing on the excruciating torture of a failed season for a team that's just too close to first place to give up. Maybe it's like owning a really unreliable car. After a while you probably just want to wail on it with a crowbar, and there's nothing that some people want to see more than the destruction and dismantling of the 2009 Cubs.
Sorry kids, it's not going to happen. For good or for bad this team is too good to give up on and too bad to actually accomplish anything. Go figure.
Ryan Theriot - In his last 18 at bats he's hitting .333 with 3 doubles and 2 walks. I'm still not sold on him reliably batting leadoff, but I think we'll all agree that he's been one of the few Cub hitters to actually exceed expectations this year.
Derrek Lee - And speaking of the other. D.Lee is 6 for his last 14 with a two-run homer.
Jeff "I still don't know who this guy is!" Baker - He's batting .333 in his last 12 at bats with a double and 2 walks. We'll take it!
Fukudome - Despite his 2 hits yesterday, Kosuke is only batting .154 in his last 4 games. (That would be because his only hits in his last 4 games were yesterday)
Randy Wells suffered his first loss in a month the last time he pitched. The point being that he's been one of the best pitchers on the team this year, and while the Nationals have some scary hitters I would expect a win tonight.
Then again, the Cubs are down 1-0 in the first inning ... that's probably not a good sign.
If you have been privy to the cyber-stalking which has been on-going in the ShoutBox, then you probably know that not everybody is happy the Cubs are beating the Nationals, and certainly not everybody thinks it means anything.
Obviously, my friends, the Cubs need to beat better teams than the worst in baseball. But until they adopt the "wins only count for half against the Nationals" policy that is currently sitting on Bud Selig's desk, then I think we'll agree that the Cubs are doing exactly what they should, and exactly what they need to do if they want to bridge the 3 game gap between them and the Cardinals. So no, neither sweeping -- nor merely beating -- the Nationals would constitute as a reason to start printing playoff tickets. But failing to do so very well might have been, and whether your opponent is Washington or Los Angeles, a road series victory is both nothing to complain about and something positive to carry into the next set of games.
Therefore I am pretty damned happy that Carlos got a win last night, beating Washington 3-1 with 5 innings of erratic pitching (he surrendered as many walks as hits - 4) and with his bat as the Big Moose hit the 2-run double that would be the difference in this game.
Perhaps more important was the homerun by Aramis Ramirez, who may or may not be hitting a lot of those considering that his shoulder is not 100%. Other small positives -- a two-hit game from Fukudome, along with signs of production from Fontenot and Bradley.
After Carlos left the Cubs bullpen stepped in and pitched 4 innings of 2 hit, 0 walk baseball.
The Cubs play for a series win today; fingers crossed that Ted Lilly will make his scheduled start as apparently his foot has been bothering him.
Apologies for the lateness.
Carlos Zambrano (5-4, 3.53) vs. John Lannan (6-6, 3.70)
Yesterday was probably "the hard one," as Rich Harden hasn't exactly been a ball of reliability these last few months.
Probably the most interesting aspect of yesterday's game -- at least for me -- was that some idiots actually expressed disappointment that the Cubs won. It is apparently a bad thing, in their opinion, if the Cubs are able to actually hold on and stay competitive for a while.
Clearly, these people are not Cub fans.
I don't think any of us here are so blind as to think that the Cubs will just saunter into the playoffs, but -- sorry, Cubbie downers -- at 3 games out of 1st place, anything is possible.
Derrek Lee -- After having hit his 18th homerun last night, I'm pretty sure everybody will agree that Lee is in top form right now.
Bradley, Soriano, etc. -- Milton went 0 for 5 yesterday, and while the Fonz went 1 for 3 he will need to do a little more than that to convince me.
A Cubs win tonight means momentum. A Cubs loss means, hopefully, that the biggest doubters will do us all a favor and finally end their miserable existence ... or become Cardinals fans, whichever they deem worse.
Good starting pitching, plus timely hitting, plus a little power, plus a shutdown bullpen, wins games. Most of the time, you only need a few of those things to win the game. Tonight, the Cubs had it all.
Rich Harden was in top shape this evening, reminding us all of exactly the type of talent we acquired last year. Remember all those double digit strikeout games from last season? This one wasn't quite that good (only seven Ks), but pair that with no walks and only three hits, and you've got yourself a great start.
On top of that, each of the mainstay relievers (Guzman, Marmol, Gregg) came in to pitch the 7th, 8th, and 9th respectively, and took care of business. Particularly exciting was a Marmol pickoff play in the 8th. Am I the only one who gets nervous when a reliever with erratic control tosses the ball haphhazardly to the first baseman?
On the hitting side, a couple of two-out RBI (one each from Riot and ReJo) helped get the Cubs in front. After that, a scrappy ninth put the game away.
I know he only had one at-bat tonight, but I'm gonna give my Gold Star on Offense to Sam Fuld, for finding a way to cross home plate yet again. Do you realize this kid has taken over 95% of the pitches thrown to him outside of the zone? It's unbelievable!
Great game, much needed win. Go Cubs!
Rich Harden (5-6, 5.47 ERA) vs. John Lannan (6-6, 3.70)
The Cubs kick off the second half in grand style against the worst team in baseball. So far this month the Cubs are 7-5 and they remain floating at .500 on the season. This comes after they squandered a chance to surge past the Cardinals right before the break, splitting a four-game set.
I have a feeling that the next two weeks will be very telling for the Cubs. If they lose ground, Hendry may need to bite the bullet and start dumping salary -- even though it would be a tremendous struggle for him to do so. It's not that there won't be buyers, but few teams carry around the pocket change necessary to afford the most expensive and disposable Cubs.
What's more likely to happen is continuing, meandering play of the team. Maybe they'll gain a game, maybe they'll continue to float, but they are unlikely to surge or acquire. It's most likely that the lost season we were afraid of back when the sale was announced before 2007 is finally upon us, with the Cubs unable to cut through the ties that bind them.
Still, the talent is there, the players who have basically tanked this year are not necessarily done producing, and stranger things have happened.
Rich Harden - Well, not as a pitcher, but he's been hitting the ball surprisingly well this year. He's 3 for his lat 3 and is batting well over .300 on the season.
Ryan Theriot - He's not drawing enough walks to warrant batting leadoff, but before the break Theriot was hitting the ball like it was Tina and he was Ike. For July, Theriot is 19 for 48 -- a .396 AVG.
Derrek Lee - He's been a little hit and miss but so far this month Lee has 6 homeruns, 18 RBI, and an OPS of 1.034. He's also only batting .262 with an OBP below .300.
Milton Bradley - It's sad that a .250 AVG constitutes as "hot," but we'll take it! More impressive than his 7 hits in 28 at bats is his 13 walks. I don't think Bradley should bat leadoff, but I'd try him in the #2 spot for a while.
Mike Fontenot - So long as he doesn't face lefties (in other words, he should sit the first two games of this series), Fontenot is a half-decent second baseman. And in July he's 9 for 29, although it's mostly singles, which I'm hoping will bode well for the rest of the month.
Fukudome - 9 for his last 40, Kosuke has proven Rob right ... apparently.
Micah Hoffpauir - Hey kids! This guy should be starting over Derrek Lee, who will lead the league in double plays this year! Actually, no, that's wrong. But while Hoffpauir has been a trustworthy bench guy/pinch hitter, he's 3 for his last 16 (.188 AVG).
The Nationals are really, really bad. Seriously bad. Painfully bad. It would be hard to feel disappointment with the Cubs if they win the series, but they really should sweep. And even though Harden has been shaky-at-best, I have to believe he puts the Cubs in position to win.
Which doesn't mean I'm expecting victory.
The Cubs kick off the second half in our nation's capital, where they take on the modern-day lovable losing Washington Nationals. (It's hard not to love this team, on pace for well over 100 losses, who can't even spell their names right on their jerseys!)
Anyway, have you ever noticed how sometimes a player's first half will be like night and day compared with his second half? I've always thought it was a bit mysterious that it happens -- but it does happen. I can think of one or five Cub players who would love to have that happen to them this season.
In the meantime, Goat Rider Yarbage will be at the games, camera in hand. He's promised to take pictures and add to the Game Recaps the kinds of details that you can't get from watching it on TV or -- lord forbid -- following along via internet feed and/or radio.
you may have noticed it hasn't been updated in a while. I'm actually re-working it completely. It will soon be known as the Zambran-0-Meter of Diminished Expectations and will only go to 90. Stay tuned for that.
Thursday, July 16th - Rich Harden vs. John Lannan
Rich Harden. Oh, how the heart weeps. Last year you were an ace, an unstoppable force on the mound whose tendons and sinew muscles could not stand up to the force fo your unnaturally nasty stuff. Except this year you've ... well, you've kinda sucked ass. I'm not sure why you would be the first guy out of the gate, but if there's a team you'll dominate it will hopefully be the Nationals. P.S. -- be careful not to float too many meatballs to Dunn.
John Lannan, known in some circles as "creepy brows" appears to be your run-of-the-mill below-avearge pitcher with an unsual-for-his-talent ERA mixed with a typical-because-of-the-team-he-pitches-for mediocre record of 6-6. This is his second full season in the bigs -- and last year he posted a 3.91 ERA with a 9-15 record and only 117 strikeouts to 72 walks in 182.0 innings of work.
Friday, July 17th - Carlos Zambrano vs. Scott Olsen
Carlos has it rough. "An ace with only 5 wins?" people cry. Actually the lack of wins isn't really upsetting -- I mean, not sure if you noticed, but the Cubs haven't exactly been breaking records this year. The only thing that concerns is his continued battle with good mechanics. He has the tendency to drop his arm slot, lose velocity, compensate by pitching harder (without actually using his legs), resulting in tendonitis and injuries. I'm not sure if the Big Moose just doesn't listen to Larry or if Larry just doesn't know how to keep Zambrano consistent, but either way Carlos will be better-served if he can figure it out fast.
Scott Olsen is another National lefty, this one with a mid 6 ERA new to Washington this season via the Marlins. He's probably your run-of-the-mill #5 starter, posting a career ERA of 4.77 and a solitary winning season back in 2006.
Saturday, July 18th - Theodore Roosevelt Lilly vs. Jordan Zimmermann
Lilly, 9-6, is at the peak of his tradability. Then again the Cubs definitely won't be dealing him so long as they are within shooting distance of the division -- whether we think they'll actually achieve the Central crown or not.
Zimmermann has an amusingly-spelled name. He's also managed all of 3 wins in 15 starts this season, his rookie year, meaning that he and Randy Wells could probably share with each other heart-breaking stories of blown leads and no run-support. Regardless, he's actually half-decent -- his ERA is 4.50, but he's got 84 strikeouts and only 28 walks in his 15 starts. If he can cut the hits down and limit the homeruns, the Nationals might have their next ace.
Sunday, July 19th - Randy Wells vs. Garrett Mock
This is actually guess work on my part. ESPN does not have Sunday's starter posted on their site. But based on how long it will have been between starts and the other guy in the rotation (Kevin Hart), Wells appears the likeliest candidate to pitch. I'm still amused by how long it took him to win his first game, and how he then won games 1-4 in rapid succession.
Garrett Mock is the listed starter for Washington, although he hasn't started a game all year long. He's got an ERA of 6.92, he's walked 8 to 6 strikeouts, and if he indeed is the Sunday starter then I like the Cubs' chances.
As far as opening series go, the Cubs probably couldn't have asked for better opponents than the Nationals. Washington is presently on pace to lose 114 games, putting them in a legendary category of suck. Even the Cubs, who have been losing up a storm this year, should do well.
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When he realized that neither Jason nor I had themotivation to write up a Series Preview, our resident realist Rob revealed his belief that the Cubs should sweep the Nationals. And they would have, too, if not for those punk kids and that talking dog, too! No, actually, it was mostly the fault of Jason Marquis. Had he not lost the ability to throw strikes, the Nationals probably would have failed to climb back and win the first game of the series.
Thankfully, Rich Harden is no Jason Marquis. Harden gave another stellar performance today, throwing 7 innings of 2-hit ball and matching his career high of 11 strikeouts. Harden has been a pleasure to watch as he just appears unflappable and unhittable - in fact, he's strongly reminding me of Mark Prior circa 2003 with one exception - Lou Piniella isn't pitching Harden's shoulder or elbow into oblivion. His 109 pitches today are the second most he's thrown for the Cubs all year long. (He threw 112 pitches against the D-Backs over a month ago.) Contrast that with 2003 Mark Prior, who in 30 starts that year, threw under 109 pitches only 10 times. Yeah, screw you too, Dusty Baker.
Harden is now 4-1 as a Cub with a 1.47 ERA. The Cubs are an 80 win team and with 32 games remaning, there is still a good chance that they might finish the year 20-12 (that's a winning percentage of .625) and become the first 100-win Cubs team in more than 70 years. Me, I'd still rather see them win a World Series.
Oh, and one other thing about Harden. At this point, if Rich and the Cubs faced Sabathia and the Brewers in the playoffs, even if I wasn't a Cubs fan, I think I'd have to bet on Harden. He's amazing.
Offensively, Mark DeRosa continues to rip the ball. He's hit 4 homeruns in as many days, and with the aforementioned 32 games remaining, DeRo has already achieved career highs in homeruns, RBI, walks, and runs scored.
Additionally, the still-struggling Kosuke Fukudome hit a pinch hit homerun - his 9th of the year - and I have hopes that he'll soon pull it together and give the Cubs a solid month of the kind of offense we came to love back in April.
Series Recap: Okay, sure, maybe the Cubs should have swept. However, if the Cubs average 2 wins per every 3 games from here on out, I, nor you, nor anybody will be complaining.
For me, I'm just pleased knowing that the Cubs are now 5 wins away from matching last year's total - a feat they will likely accomplish before August ends. Before the month began, I speculated that they should and perhaps would need to win at least 17 to maintain a healthy lead on the Brewers. With 7 games remaining, they have won 15, and I'd argue that they are in position to win 20.
Granted, the Brewers have hung tough and they've kept up. In fact, I'm astonished by how well they've played. However, they won't keep up. The Cubs are just a superior team and, sooner or later, they'll discover that C.C. Sabathia has been writing checks that his arm cannot cash. In the meantime ...
Current Record: 80-50
Position in the NL Central: 1st place, 5 games in front of Milwaukee (who, at this posting, are tied 3-3 with Pittsburgh in extra innings) and 8 ahead of St. Louis
Best Possible Record: 112-50
Worst Possible Record: 80-82
On Pace For: 100-62
Magic Number: 28, as powered by CubsMagicNumber.com
After yesterday's depressing collapse, the Cubs apparently decided to get serious about beating the Nationals today. Impressively, they did it by the same margin of yesterday's defeat - 7 runs - thanks to the bat of Aramis Ramirez and the pitching arm of Ryan Dempster, both of whom had very good days.
A-Ram hit 2 3-run homeruns, giving him 22 and 90 on the season. I can't help but think of where the Cubs would be without him - fourth place and out of the playoff hunt. For those of you who recently went back and re-familiarized yourselves with the Aramis Cock Fighting Controversy, while this is day 115 of the PETA protest of Wrigley Field, I am happy to report that most of the picket line breaks up at game time as the protestors sneak off to fill their seats. Also, like the rest of you, I am shocked - shocked, I say - that Aramis has continued to dodge the bullets of angry cock-loving pitchers*, who continue to throw at him but somehow keep missing. And for those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, trust me, you're better off not getting the jokes.
(*Sorry. Really couldn't help myself.)
Oh, Mark DeRosa hit his second homerun in as many days, giving him a career high 17. I can't get over how great an acquisition he's been for the Cubs. Along with about 20 other guys on the team, the Cubs wouldn't be where they are right now without him.
Dempster, meanwhile, pitched into the 8th inning, exiting after giving up a single and beaning Lastings Milledge. Carlos Marmol relieved him and did what Carlos Marmol does best - glare the opposition back onto the bench. All told, it was a very fulfilling day for the Cubs, and with Rich Harden pitching tomorrow, they have a great chance of taking the series against the Nationals before moving on to more easy prey - the Pirates. It should be fun to watch.