As the All Star Game nears, Alfonso Soriano is becoming a topic of controversy and conversation. Naturally, he wants to play - even if it might make him appear a little selfish, at the end of the day it's very human of him to want to be there. However, he appears unlikely to return to the Cubs until the series after the break - assuming he doesn't do a rehab stint first - and the Cubs may be interested in protecting him from the unnecessary risk of injury, thereby denying him a place in the All Star Game.
While I think it's pretty cool that the Cubs have so many players at the game, it isn't entirely necessary that they all play. I for one would much rather see Soriano wait and come back healthy.
Besides, the objective of the All Star Game is to win homefield advantage for the World Series. Considering that his timing will be off even if he's healthy enough to play, I'd rather Alfonso not take a bat out of the hands of the NL All Stars.
Regardless, the man heals fast, doesn't he?
Hopefully for the time being, the panic has now subsided. The Cubs entered this series against St. Louis as 1) a crappy road team, 2) a slumping team in general, and 3) a team in need of some wins in order to maintain a distance between them and the second place Cards. They managed to not only accomplish what they needed, but they have actually knocked St. Louis into third! The Cubs now exit St. Louis for Cincinnati as a team 3.5 games ahead of the Cardinals and 3.5 games ahead of the now-second place Brewers (ahead of St. Louis by percentage points).
A statistic that was brought to my attention not too long ago: the Cubs have now played in 89 games. Of their remaining 73 games, they play 16 games against the Cardinals and Brewers. 10 of those 16 games will be played on unfriendly ground, and these game represent a full 22% of all remaining games this year. I suppose we can look at that number in two different ways. Either the Cubs are in for a rocky road because they regularly play the teams closest to them, or, better yet, the Cubs have full control of their own destiny as they play their rival teams often enough to keep them out of the playoffs by merely winning.
They managed to achieve that goal today, largely because of their All Star players. The Cubs scored 7 runs off of 16 hits. All Star third baseman Aramis Ramirez went 2-3 with 3 RBI. All Star catcher Geovany Soto hit a solo homerun - his 15th of the season. All Star right fielder Kosuke Fukudome went 1 for 2 and scored a run. All Star starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano glared at the Cardinals from the dugout. It was great!
The Cubs got contributions from the non-All Stars, too. Ryan Theriot - who was in the top 3 in votes and perhaps could have been an All Star - went 3 for 5. Derrek Lee - who also was a top vote-getter in a crowded position - also went 3 for 5 with a double. Mark DeRosa - another big vote-getter - went 2 for 4 with an RBI.
On the pitching front, Sean Marshall did what he had to do. He went 6 innings on 88 pitches, allowing 6 hits, walking 1, striking out 4, and permitting only 1 run to score - a Ludwick solo shot. He was succeeded by the surprisingly effective Neal Cotts, who struck out 2 and has worked his ERA down to 2.57 on the year. Marmol followed - Marmol being another guy who was almost a sure-fire All Star a few weeks back - and he needed only 10 pitches (7 for strikes) to escape the 8th unscathed. And Bob Howry delivered a soundless, boring 9th, no bubbles no troubles.
All things considered, it was a successful series. Even Albert Pujols - who certainly wasn't showing his age by going 5-11 in the 3 games against the Cubs - wasn't enough to win it for the Cardinals.
It's exciting to note that the Cubs will have so many more important games against top rivals in the second half. I realize that so many games against the Cardinals and Brewers might evoke panic from some Cub fans, but you know what? We didn't need 7 All Star selections and about 4 near-misses to figure out that this is an outstanding team. I am confident that the Cubs will reach the playoffs, and I don't think it's going to come down to the last day of the season, or even the last week. The Cardinals will soon realize that they are built in part on the arms of converted relievers and the bat of a converted pitcher, and they will return to the median. It's the Brewers who will be a threat through August and September, and they are thankfully managed by Shemp Yost*. I don't know about you, but I'm feeling good about this team.
(*That's a photoshop waiting to happen.)
Current Record: 53-36
Position in the NL Central: 1st place, 3.5 games ahead of St. Louis and Milwaukee
On Pace For: 97-65
Record needed to win 120: 67-6 (okay, fine, so it's not gonna happen, as if that's a shock to anybody but Carlos)
In all incidents, good and bad, I blame Rob.
Kosuke Fukudome, in the throws of a slump, is briefly discussed by Rob. Fukudome responds with a homerun in the first at bat of his next game.
Kerry Wood, having buckled down and saved a close one yesterday, is briefly praised by Rob. Kerry Wood forgets how to locate the strike zone. He walks the first two batters he faces, surrenders an RBI double, and then intentionally walks the bases loaded before almost escaping, and then surrendering the winning hit to the strikeout prone (HINT, HINT) Rick Ankiel.
Rob, you have a mighty power. We must find a way to harness it for the forces of good.
Today's game was definitely an example of pulling defeat from the clutches of victory. The pitching has been the story of the series thus far; Lilly and Lohse both had strong outings. Lohse was picked away at sporadically, however the Cardinals got to Lilly in the 6th for 2 runs, evening the score.
The Cubs then proceeded to reclaim the lead by a Ramirez 2-run homer in the 8th, and with everything looking secure, Kerry Wood trotted to the mound. Actually, I thought he was going to get out of it. After loading the bases with no outs, the Cubs got a force at home and a shallow pop-up. With 2 outs in the game, Rick Ankiel stepped up and mother-effed the Cubs with a 2-run hit that was officially ruled a single because, y'know, the game ended.
I blame the 'roids. But hey, here's what Rick has to look forward to over the coming years.
Hey, even the good ones aren't so good once in a while. Woody has been close-to-perfect since the start of June. These games in St. Louis are obviously amplified a little, and a win today would have just kicked ass, but a 9th inning 3-run come-from-behind defeat? Eh. It's a gut shot, but in a 162 game season in which even the best of them lose 60 or 70 times, there will be plenty of those.
Cubs and Cardinals play in the rubber game tomorrow. It's Marshall vs. Wellemeyer, look for the two teams to combine to score 15 or 20 runs.
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.
Hey, everybody. It occurs to me that, because I was away essentially for both White Sox series, you never saw the awesome photoshops I created for the Sox. So, without further delay, behold the lost masterpieces of the 2008 photoshop season!
They're crack pipes, in case you failed to know.
I have yet to craft any images for the month of July, but I'll probably take care of that this weekend. I'm sure you're all heartbroken and disappointed.
How do you lose to a man named Liz? It was a question for the ages, one which we believed could never be answered. Turns out that we were wrong. Jason Marquis, the Human Rosetta Stone (he'll crack the code of Suck in three dead languages, just watch him pitch) threw with ineptitude today, leading the Cubs to a rare home-series defeat.
It's okay. With four games to go this month, the Cubs have already met my "we'll be okay if they win X games this month" expectations. But it was still painful watching the Cubs squander early opportunities and surrender a copious amount of runs. For instance - the 2nd inning. Radhames Liz took a page out of Carlos Marmol's discarded book and loaded the bases off of one hit. And one HBP, and one walk. He then proceeded to take a page out of George Sherrill's book and induced a fielder's choice and fouled out Eric Patterson.
Following this momentously squandered opportunity, Baltimore took time between high-fiving themselves for having escaped a close one and proceeded to repeatedly display their dominance of Jason Marquis. With two outs in the inning, Marquis intentionally walked the #3 hitter Nick Markakis*, which promptly backfired as he unintentionally walked home a run before Aubrey Huff - who apparently felt inspired by my man-love - doubled in 2 runs, followed by a Jay Payton 2 RBI single before the Cubs managed to limp out of the inning.
(*Imagine if you will an outfield including Markakis and Fukudome, with the great Harry Caray calling the game. That would be must-see TV.)
After allowing 2 more runs in the 4th, Jason Marquis departed for Jon Lieber, who continued the hurting by allowing another run to score. And then, some more runs scored - 3 in the 6th off of the Eyre/Wuertz duo. Now, I knew this would happen. Any time you take a player of debatable ability and defend him, he's bound to immediately do exactly what people were criticizing him about. However, while Wuertz definitely filled the "From Bad to ..." quotient today, even his harshest detractors will have to acknowledge one thing: it cost the Cubs nothing. This game was over the second Jason Marquis crapped the bed in the 2nd.
The Cubs managed to get some offense once Baltimore decided to rest up, and they eventually managed to score 4 runs. 2 of those 4 runs were driven in by Eric Patterson, which just proves that at a glance, anybody can look good. Keywords: at a glance. Patterson had 2 RBI, he could've/should've had closer to 4 or 5, and had he capitalized on his bases loaded chance in the 2nd, it could've/should've been a much different ballgame.
Marquis now finds himself at 6-4, and where his ERA had almost crept to under 4 before this game, it has now climbed its way back up toward 5. So much for the Marquis de Resurgent. Oh well, at least he - and the relievers - managed to keep a lid on Cintron. (Cue photoshop)
Series Recap: Definitely a disappointing set. The Cubs have been hit-and-miss against the AL, and it's a little disappointing that Baltimore was able to come to Wrigley and play so well. So much for the rumors that the Cubs are stealing signs. On the bright side, the Tigers beat the Cardinals in 10, so the Cubs remain 4.5 games ahead of the 2nd place team in the central. With four games left to go, this has been a pretty good month for Chicago, all things considered. If - big if - they can continue to dominate the White Sox, then they will not just have met my "must-win" expectations ... they will have exceeded them.
Current Record: 49-30
Position in the NL Central: 1st place, 4.5 games ahead of St. Louis
On Pace For: 101-61
Record needed to win 120: 71-12
Last night, I wrote: Cub injuries are like caffeine - they keep you up all night, and with too much over a short period of time you run the risk of ulcers, getting the jitters, and anxiety. That's a photoshop if I ever thought of one.
From my mouth to God's ears:
P.S. I am of course nervous about Carlos's shoulder, but I have a feeling that this won't be a season-ending deal. It might be a mechanics-altering deal, and a keep-Z-on-a-short-leash deal, but I think it'll end at that.
It's halfway into June, and the Cubs have won 10 of the 14 games I projected they needed to win to do well this month. If Chicago can go 4-9 the rest of the way out, then they will have met my lowest expectation for the month. At this stage, I have a strong feeling that if the Cubs "only" finish one game over .500 in their roughest month of the season, then we'd all be pretty disappointed.
On the contrary, the Cubs are continuing to play great baseball against tough teams. Although they are under-performing and their manager is on the brink of being fired, the Jays are not easy to beat here in Toronto, and yet the Cubs did well to make it look easy.
Today, the Cubs scored 7 runs before the Jays even managed to score 1 off of 12 hits, and only 1 of those 12 hits was a homerun. In fact, the Cubs scored all their runs but 2 off of singles - a sight that would have been uncommon back in the days of Dusty. Every Cubs regular except DeRosa got at least 1 hit, none got more than 2, the team collectively drew a solitary walk, and Aramis Ramirez hit his 10th homer of the year.
Ted Lilly, meanwhile, gave the Cubs another reasonably solid performance. I describe it as such primarily because Theodore Roosevelt Lilly gave up a whole whack of walks in his 6 innings pitched - 5 guys. He also managed to strike out 6, however, and more importantly he allowed only 1 walk. He was relieved by a Cubs bullpen that hemorrhaged runs - 1 by Eyre, 2 by Cotts, and even 1 by the solid Kerry Wood - but the Cubs escaped with another victory and a series win against the Jays.
The Cubs did what they needed to do. They came to Toronto, played a tough Blue Jays team, auditioned A.J. Burnett who gave a solid performance and earned me a free slice of pizza, and most importantly, they took 2 of 3. The Cubs are now 20 games over .500, and in spite of a Soriano injury, they appear to be cruising. Not even the appearance of a handful of reCards could stop the Cubs, who now travel to Tampa where they will play their soon-to-be World Series rivals. Should be a lot of fun.
Lastly, I would like to thank Byron for posting a handful of times today, including an abbreviated recap, while I'd also like to apologize for my own abbreviated recap. I have a tremendous, painful headache and will wrap it short with a photoshop:
Current Record: 45-25
Position in the NL Central: 1st place, 3.5 games ahead of St. Louis
On Pace For: 104-58
Record needed to win 120: 75-17
I just got back from a weekend away and I see that nobody has had the chance to post today. Don't worry, I have a laawwwwwt I want to say about the Cubs. Come back later today and I promsie we'll have something for you.
And here's a photoshop to hold you over 'til then: