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.
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!
Back to the now-infamous Series Preview. I wrote:
...if Lohse had to exit even earlier on Sunday, and if Wainwright stayed in too long on Sunday night and gave up bundles of runs in the 7th or 8th?
Phase Three: FAIL.
It's hard to rough up a pitcher who only needs 90-or-so pitches to get into the 8th. Maybe the Cubs were anxious to start their mid-season vacations, or perhaps the team is just utterly hapless against top-notch pitching, but no matter how you look at it the Cardinals were in control all night long.
And so, we are left with a Cubs team in the same spot they were in before the 4-game series: at .500, 3.5 games out of first place in a division nobody wants to win. A small consolation Cub fans -- the Cardinals and their fans came to Chicago to bury the Cubs and failed.
Other small consolations from last night:
-Signs of life from Milton Bradley: Don't Wake went 2 for 4 with a double and an RBI
-More leadoff success from the reincarnation of Doug Dascenzo: Sam Fuld went 2 for 3 with a walk
-One of the craziest managerial moves we've seen in a while. In the 9th, with the bases loaded, no outs, and a plethora of lefties coming up behind a righty, Lou took relief pitcher Sean Marshall off the mound and inserted him in left field. Aaron Heilman came in, got the out, and Marshall then returned to the mound to finish the ending. Even Tony "Crazy-Ass Moves" LaRussa was impressed.
On the other hand, Ryan Theriot made a ridiculous fielding error in that inning which led the Cubs into needing to encorporate that nutty strategy. But worst of all, Milton Bradley, Jeff Baker, and Micah Hoffpauir all took their bats in the 9th by striking out looking. Maybe Franklin's stuff is just that sick but Lou Piniella is not known to tolerate lightly the "struck out looking in the 9th" scenario.
So. An ultimately disappointing -- but not crushing -- series. I'm coming to expect more of the same in the second half. I'd say at this point that the Cubs don't look like the worst team in the league but they are clearly not the best. An 81-81 record might be just on track and I'll have to craft a Zambran-0-Meter of Diminished Expectations before the break ends.
Current Record: 43-43
Position in the NL Central: 4th place, 3.5 games out
Best Possible Record: 119-43
Worst Possible Record: 43-119
Record needed to win 110: 57-9
On Pace For: 81-81
if Lohse had to exit even earlier on Sunday, and if Wainwright stayed
in too long on Sunday night and gave up bundles of runs in the 7th or
Phase Two: Complete.
Granted, the Cubs didn't chase Lohse particularly early, but the Cardinals were forced to turn to three relievers to get through the final 4 innings of today's game. That puts them at having used 5 relievers in the past 2 days. Chances are they will recycle a few for tonight's game, but the Cubs only need to take Wainwright for rides early and often or exploit him in the late innings to pretty much accomplish everything we could've hoped for.
This afternoon's win came from the arm of Carlos Zambrano -- who had one rocky inning and was otherwise on his game -- and also from his bat, along with Micah Hoffpauir's. The Hoff gave the Cubs an early lead with a 3-run, 1st inning homer and Carlos put them ahead for good in the 4th with his solo shot. By the time the Cardinals' defense collapsed and the Cubs tacked on 3 more in the 7th it was already over.
So, points to the Cubs who kept Lee and Ramirez in reserve for tonight's game, and who are now on track to get back into the race for the division in epic fashion.
Everything happens. Maybe even a few Cubs surprises.
Can you imagine what would happen if they chased Thompson in the 4th,
if Lohse had to exit even earlier on Sunday, and if Wainwright stayed
in too long on Sunday night and gave up bundles of runs in the 7th or
Phase One: Complete.
I'll say again that the Cardinals are idiots if they plan on running their less-reliable starter out there first tomorrow. They're already pretty much down two relievers as both Kinney and Hawksworth went more than 1 inning (although I'm sure we'll see at least one of them tomorrow).
Meanwhile, the Cubs offense pretty much matched yesterday's output -- 9 hits, 3 walks, but this time they scored 5 runs while their pitcher Ted Lilly went 8 strong innings for his 9th win.
Contributing to the offensive barrage was Aramis (1 for 4, 1 RBI), Alfonso "Can We Trade Him" Soriano, Milton "Don't Wake Daddy" Bradley, And Jeff "I DON'T KNOW WHO THIS GUY IS!!" Baker.
And the Cubs chose not to walk Pujols. I'm not sure why. Like Carlos Lee, he should never see a strike when facing the Cubs. I don't care if he's 60 and geriatric (and he's probably well on his way) if Grandpa Pujols walkered his way up to the plate, hefted a bat with his shaking hands, and saw a single strike I would be pissed. He's a Cub killer, amiright?
Tomorrow the Cubs play ... for the season.
I don't think there's an intelligent Cub fan out there who thinks the Cubs will sweep.
And yet here we are, acting as if the defeat of the Cubs at the hands of the best Cardinals pitcher -- who faced off against the least reliable Cubs pitcher -- is somehow a betrayal or a surprise. Sorry, folks, but it definitely wasn't.
Instead I'll just note the following:
Batting stats for the month of July
Alfonso Soriano - 6 for 24 (.250 AVG), 2 doubles, 0 homers, .613 OPS.
Milton Bradley - 4 for 21 (.191 AVG) 1 homer, 9 BB, .767 OPS. (And to think that there were blogs out there which criticized our F/F+ rating of Bradley this year)
Geovany Soto - 4 for 18 (.222 AVG)
It's kind of hard to contest the nay-sayings of Rob when three regulars are combining to bat .222 for the month. Then again, the Cubs have had 3 (or more) out of 8 regulars doing that every single month this season, hence the preposterously bad record.
Yesterday, the Cubs batted .250 as a team -- seems less impressive when 2 of their 9 hits came from Rich Harden -- and would have been shut out were it not for Derrek Lee's 3 run homerun.
Still, when Harden left it was a 1-run game. Then Aaron Heilman came in and crapped his pants in front of 40,000 people, putting the game out of reach.
However I'll bring it back to the first thing I said. Anybody who thought the Cubs would sweep is crazy. But with Carpenter gone, it becomes a much closer series and I truly believe anything can happen.
By the way, a note to Lou Piniella: intentionally walk Pujols. Do it every single time. Or blow in a drug test, either way.
The best thing about today's game was that there was no single best thing: the Cubs got a ton of guys on base, Ted Lilly posted a quality start, and the relievers Lou called upon late in the game were able to get outs.
Having said that, I think the "best best thing" would have to be the eight runs the Cubs were able to bring home today. Gigantic home runs from Lee and Fox, clutch two-out hitting throughout the game, productive outs with men on third base and less than two outs--it was all there.
With that, the Cubs take three of four from the scuttling Brewers. Milwaukee now faces the division-leading Cardinals and league-leading Dodgers in their next two series before the All-Star Break.
The Cubs did well to take advantage of an opportunity to gain ground in the division. They'll need to make the most of Aramis Ramirez' return as the Braves arrive in Chicago tomorrow.
Speaking of Ramirez' return, it'll be interesting to see how the Cubs handle the returns of three key players this week, with Aramis, Reed Johnson, and Angel Guzman all returning to the active roster. I'm sure everyone else around here has an opinion of their own on what the team should do, and believe it or not, so do I.
My three top choices to send to Iowa are Jeff Baker (easy), Kevin Hart (kinda easy), and Micah Hoffpauir (toughest decision).
Hart's got options, so we may as well use 'em. Baker's probably better than Ryan Freel, and definitely better than Aaron Miles, but beyond that I don't see where he fits on to this team.
That leaves Micah Hoffpauir. Maybe this isn't that controversial a stance, but look at Micah's offensive numbers on the year, and consider his offensive defense throughout his career. I prefer Sam Fuld's patience and speed to Micah's raw power--and consequent propensity for striking out.
Let's keep the hot Fuld up, and send the cold Hoff down. As soon as the trend(s) reverse(s), we can make another move. In the meantime, I hope Lou goes for versatility over power.
Current Record: 40-39
Position in the NL Central: 3th place, 2.5 games out
Best Possible Record: 123-39
Worst Possible Record: 40-122
Record needed to win 110: 70-13
On Pace For: 82-80
So. After an offensive explosion on Thursday, it took the Cubs 10 innings to git'er'done on Friday. Carlos Zambrano's 7 inning performance was not wasted, but he did not reap the spoils. Then again, if any no-decision pitcher deserved credit for the win it's Carlos, who's 5th inning single tied up the game until a bases-loaded 10th inning walk gave it to the Cubs.
So, what did we learn from yesterday? We learned that no 10-run drubbings translate into consistently scoring runs. We learned at long last that even Lou can no longer justify batting Alfonso Soriano leadoff. We also learned that the Cubs bullpen is capable of holding a team down in a low-scoring affair.
The results -- the Cubs are tied in the loss column for first place in the Central.
Not to mention what's planned for today's game, which I will outline in a post following this one probably by a matter of minutes.
But while certain things are and always will be debated, I'm pretty sure that by this point we can all come together and agree that Derrek Lee was not in fact washed up after the 2008 season. The declining power? Probably an indication of nursing injuries more than anything else. The double plays? Just bad luck, fluke, and coincidence wrapped up in a nice bow. The Hoffsplooge love? Perhaps a little premature. Last night for the second time this season Derrek had a two homerun game. The difference from the first, though, was that he did it with lots of runners on base. Derrek started things off in the first with a three-run homer -- amazing the things that can happen if your leadoff hitter manages to actually get on base -- and he was followed up two batters later by Jake Fox's 3rd. Then, after the Brewers came within 2 runs of the lead, Geovany Soto smoked his 8th homerun of the year* Derrek stepped up again -- this time with the bases loaded -- and hit a Grand Slam. It would be the last time the Cubs would score, but it would also be the last time they needed to -- even though the Brewers nicked back runs in the 6th through 8th innings, it was never close. (*"Smoked his 8th homerun of the year?" Heh. Puns.) Lee is now on pace to hit 33 homeruns, to drive in 112 RBI, and to have the second-highest OPS of his career with the Cubs. After only playing 65 games, he is 4 homeruns shy of last year's total. At GROTA we believe in flexibility in both women and baseball, and so while many of us argued that Lee was best-suited to bat 6th a few months ago I'm sure we'd all agree now that he should remain the #3 hitter for as long as his hot bat justifies it. As for Ryan Dempster, the bad-luck Cubs starter, he pitched into the 7th, striking out 9, raising his ERA to 4.09, but collecting his 5th win of the season. It wasn't perhaps the ideal start but we'll take it. The Cubs are now 2.5 games out of first. If they are able to win this series, they will be no more than 1.5 games behind the Brewers when Milwaukee leaves town. If the Cubs sweep, they might not find themselves settled in at first place (the Cardinals and Reds would still have a say in that) but they would be, at least temporarily, ahead of the Brewers in the standings. Just food for thought.
So. We will probably debate certain aspects of baseball philosophy forever. For example, while drowning in a sea of pessemism as of late, I have recently thrown out a lifeline by way of poining out how the Cubs are in an excellent position to give Brewer and Cardinal fans anxiety disorders. That is something Rob will disagree with staunchly even though doing so ignores that, were the Cubs in first place right now and had they just suffered a 9 to 5 loss to the fourth place Brewers, he'd be crapping his pants just as badly.
But while certain things are and always will be debated, I'm pretty sure that by this point we can all come together and agree that Derrek Lee was not in fact washed up after the 2008 season. The declining power? Probably an indication of nursing injuries more than anything else. The double plays? Just bad luck, fluke, and coincidence wrapped up in a nice bow. The Hoffsplooge love? Perhaps a little premature.
Last night for the second time this season Derrek had a two homerun game. The difference from the first, though, was that he did it with lots of runners on base. Derrek started things off in the first with a three-run homer -- amazing the things that can happen if your leadoff hitter manages to actually get on base -- and he was followed up two batters later by Jake Fox's 3rd. Then, after the Brewers came within 2 runs of the lead, Geovany Soto smoked his 8th homerun of the year* Derrek stepped up again -- this time with the bases loaded -- and hit a Grand Slam. It would be the last time the Cubs would score, but it would also be the last time they needed to -- even though the Brewers nicked back runs in the 6th through 8th innings, it was never close.
(*"Smoked his 8th homerun of the year?" Heh. Puns.)
Lee is now on pace to hit 33 homeruns, to drive in 112 RBI, and to have the second-highest OPS of his career with the Cubs. After only playing 65 games, he is 4 homeruns shy of last year's total. At GROTA we believe in flexibility in both women and baseball, and so while many of us argued that Lee was best-suited to bat 6th a few months ago I'm sure we'd all agree now that he should remain the #3 hitter for as long as his hot bat justifies it.
As for Ryan Dempster, the bad-luck Cubs starter, he pitched into the 7th, striking out 9, raising his ERA to 4.09, but collecting his 5th win of the season. It wasn't perhaps the ideal start but we'll take it.
The Cubs are now 2.5 games out of first. If they are able to win this series, they will be no more than 1.5 games behind the Brewers when Milwaukee leaves town. If the Cubs sweep, they might not find themselves settled in at first place (the Cardinals and Reds would still have a say in that) but they would be, at least temporarily, ahead of the Brewers in the standings.
Just food for thought.
Fortunately, they were able to do that today.
Aside from Randy Wells continuing to outdo himself, the story from tonight's game has to be the pleasantly surprising performance of one Sam Fuld. Sam went 2-for-4 from the leadoff spot, including a double to start a game, and also walked once.
One other special surprise: Fukudome hit a home run! Crazy!
One more Randy Wells comment: he's chalked up another start in which he allowed one or fewer extra base hits. His allowed slugging percentage is a paltry .328 at this point.
It kinda feels like the Cubs can't win unless they hold the opposing team to zero or one runs. Fortunately, they've been able to do that fairly consistently.
Kudos to Wells, Fuld, the Fook-ster, Derrek Lee, and perhaps most importantly, the New York Mets, who took down the Brewers tonight. Three and a half out, with a whole half-season to go!
Additional Notes from Kurt
Although the Cubs held the lead all night, Lou Piniella finally exploded in a fit of ANGER and got himself expelled from the game.
The short of this series is that -- although the Cubs got shut out by a pitcher coming soon to a softball game near you -- the Cubs took 2 of 3 on a road series (something they haven't done a lot this year) against a crappy team overplaying their talent. Naysayers -- also known in some circles as "realists" -- will point out that beating the Pirates means about as much as successfully breathing. But I say that, on the contrary, every win is important even if they are to be expected. Besides, the Cubs are playing two out of their next three series against the Brewers and Cardinals -- if they had entered the up-coming four gamer after having lost to the Pirates, I think we'd all be going to games with our hangin' nooses around our necks.
I will say that I completely understand the negativity -- obviously. We've been saying since May that the Cubs are only a few games out, and all they need to do is string together a series of wins and it will suddenly be their division to lose. That's true but it's a lot harder than a three-dozen-or-so word sentence makes it out to be. In fact we've been saying it for so long that the season has now slipped into July, with the All Star Game looming. And we're probably wrong for feeling this way but the Cubs are playing with every appearance of time running out on them before they get their acts together.
Then again, if we were fans of the Brewers or Cardinals, I suspect that in our secret places we would be pissed off and perhaps even a little terrified of the fact that our teams have failed to spread the field with a team as potent as the Cubs creeping along behind them.
Perhaps we are so used to this being the Cubs, for gawdssakes, that we are forgetting how we would feel if the Cubs were in the place of the Cardinals right now. We'd be in a panic. We'd be furious at our team for failing to take advantage of a weak division. In other words, even if things were different we'd still be acting the same -- and that says a lot about our sanity or lack thereof. So I'll conclude my tack-on recap with the following, indesputable (not even by you, Rob) observation:
Perhaps it really still is ours to lose.
Rob: indisputable. Anyway, only a moron would state that, statistically, the Cubs are out of the running when they are 3.5 games out with 85 games to go.
However, the Cubs have played .493 ball this year. It is indisputable that they have the capability to play better ball. You may believe they will, due to the logic that they are better than this. I have not seen anything thus far in 2009 to lead me to believe that they are. They have looked like a .500 team from day one. They have some decent days, and some miserable ones.
So do we all, I suppose. Then again, I haven't deluded myself into thinking I am going to win the Employee of the Year at my job, and I am also not going to delude myself into thinking that we will win four more games than the Brewers AND the Cardinals the rest of the way. The Brewers have a better lineup than we do on our best days, and the Cardinals are better managed, both Generally and on the Field.
So, unless we make a good trade, or unless guys like Soto, Bradley, Zambrano and Soriano do an about-face, we won't be able to make up even the meager deficit we have now.
Current Record: 37-38
Position in the NL Central: 4th place, 3.5 games out
Best Possible Record: 124-38
Worst Possible Record: 37-125
Record needed to win 110: 73-14
On Pace For: 80-82