Milwaukee got off to a great start last night, winning a game they could not afford to lose. And while Cub fans have to be mildly concerned with the hemorrhaging by the bullpen, we just need to remember one extremely important detail - the guy who turned it into a route for Milwaukee was Chad Gaudin. If he's going to the playoffs, it will only be because he's bought a ticket. Lou Piniella probably can't get him out of the clubhouse fast enough right now. In fact, Gaudin has fallen so far so fast that he's actually turned Bob Howry - Bob F****ng Howry! - into a viable post season option.
Also used last night in the pen were Jeff Smardzija and Carlos Marmol - leaving Kerry Wood to fend for himself all alone tomorrow night when the Cubs are in a perilous close-and-late situation.
Offensively, while the Cubs were unable to strike, they did threaten a lot. The team accounted for 9 hits and 2 walks, including 3 from Mike Fontenot. Who ever thought that Lil' Babe Ruth would earn himself a playoff starting gig? Fontenot has his batting average up to .303 on the season.
Other big hitters last night - Jim Edmonds, who smacked his 20th homerun last night, and Ryan Theriot both accounted for 2 of the team's hits. The big point of concern happened in the middle innings when Geovany Soto hurt his hand fouling off a pitch. Soto - who I'm on the brink of nicknaming Hedwig, but I won't explain why - has had a sore hand at various points in the season, but he said after the game that he will be fine and not even being struck by a hail of bullets would keep him out of the playoffs.
By the way, Dempster wound up throwing exactly 80 pitches and lasting 5 innings. While he did not walk away with win #18, he was able to lower his seasonal ERA to 2.96.
The Cubs tee off on - er, square off with the fragile - uhm, invincible Ben Sheets today in an early game. If they want to deny the Brewers a trip to the playoffs, it's a game the Cubs really can't afford to lose.
The playoff roster roulette table keeps on spinning, and tonight Micah Hoffpauir made his statement against Pedro Martinez and the Mets. Hoffpauir went 5 for 5 tonight against New York, with a double, 2 homeruns, 5 runs driven in, and after the game he reportedly cleaned the Augean stables and captured the girdle of Hippolyte*. But, alas, the Cubs were doomed to lose anyway, thanks in part to Lou responsibly saving his top relievers for games that matter.
(*For Googlers of the Labors of Herakles, welcome. Thanks for the clicks. Sorry about not being what you were looking for. But for a great resource on Greek Myth, consult the Perseus Digital Library ... although if you want to be blown away by verifiable modern-day myth, just Google Micah Hoffpauir. Dude jacked 2 in one game tonight.)
Speaking of roulette*, Neal Cotts worked tirelessly to get onto Lou Piniella's shiz-list tonight with a rocky 8th inning. He was last seen being chased from the mound by Piniella, yelling "but you need me!" as he ducked into the tunnel leading to the clubhouse. Bob Howry quickly joined Cotts by giving up 2 RBI hits upon relieving the inept lefty.
(*For Googlers looking for rules about the game of roulette ... ehhh, forget it. You came to the wrong place. I mean, you Googled "roulette." Why the heck did you click on a link that said "Goat Riders of the Apocalypse?" Did you think it was some witty play off the term "let it ride!"? And if so, how the heck could you justify the Goat and the Apocalypse part of our name? I mean, seriously!)
No worries. While the Cubs are now incapable of winning 100 this year, they remain poised to win all the games that actually matter. What's more, they are in an excellent position to spoil the hopes of the hapless Milwaukee Brewers, who are on the brink of completing their Wild Card collapse. All they have to do is beat them, and that's something the Cubs have enjoyed doing all year long.
The Playoff Roster
While we continue to debate Hoffpauir's inclusion, and while we ponder the image of Neal Cotts sneaking into Lou's hotel room at night and feverishly whispering "you need me!" over and over again as our skipper slumbers, it has been confirmed by ESPN that the Game 1 starter will be Dempster.
Clownsevelt will also apparently get one final tune-up before the end of the season, although he will be limited to a mere 75-80 pitches against the Brewers tomorrow night. While Brandon Webber has to be the hands-down favorite to win the Greg Maddux Award this year, Dempster should get more than a few votes.
You are still focused on the frightening image of Neal Cotts whispering into the ear of Lou Piniella. Well, here's a fun fact for you to think about once you get over the convulsions...
The New York Mets, desperate for a playoff spot and fighting two teams to earn one, were barely able to split a series from a Cubs team that batted back-ups and call-ups 80 times in the 4 game series.
C'mon. How can you not feel good about this team? And Smitty - where are you, man? I want a recant!
Tonight's game was one of thrills and disappointments. Cub fans were thrilled to see an offensive outburst, including a 4 run 5th inning that would bring the team back from a serious deficit. Cub fans were disappointed that Carlos Zambrano continues to make up for his September moment of brilliance with yet another mediocre and stress-inducing start. We were thrilled that after going into extra innings, the team scored 3 runs in the 10th to capture the win. We were disappointed, bizarrely enough, by Bob Howry's buckling down and escaping a dangerous 9th. We were thrilled that Kerry Wood had a 1-2-3 10th to get his 34th save of the season. Some of us were disappointed, again bizarrely, because the Mets lost and the Brewers still have a shot of getting into the playoffs.
But as I said in the shout box, don't worry. The Cubs can beat the Mets again tomorrow - in fact, I hope they do - but it means little to the Brewers, because Chicago will be their final obstacle this season. Considering the crappy luck Milwaukee has had against the Cubs so far, I have a pretty strong suspicion that they won't have an easy sweep this weekend.
Now, to break it all down...
Yes, Cub fans, Mark DeRosa left the game after a 2 for 3 start (including a homer, a double, and 3 RBI) because, as GA Hill noted in the Shout Box, he's got a strained calf. Lou Piniella has noted that DeRosa was scheduled to rest the next couple of days anyway, and it seems unlikely that he'll be at risk to miss time in the playoffs.
Furthermore, the Cubs saw good offensive days from a few other guys, too. The Fonz went 2 for 5. Theriot went 3 for 6 and will probably finish the year with a better-than-.300 AVG and the second-highest total of hits for any player on the team. Oh, Reed Johnson also had a good game, going 2 for 5, and Aramis "Nail in the Coffin" Ramirez got some Big Game Hit practice tonight with his 10th inning 2-run homer.
On the pitching front, forgetting about Carlos, Neal Cotts struck out 3 in 1.1 innings of work, Jeff Samardzija had another rough inning, Bob Freakin' Howry nearly blew it in the 9th, but managed to hold on for a Kerry Wood save in the 10th.
Let's spend a moment on Howry. Apparently unconcerned with actually winning, Lou brought Bob in and Mr. Excitement surrendered a leadoff triple, struck out David Wright, intentionally walked the next 2 guys to load the bases, forced Ramon Castro to hit into a fielder's choice ground out, and then struck out Ryan Church to escape. Cripes, that's not the kind of baseball I had in mind tonight.
Anyway, with 4 games remaining the Cubs accomplished 2 things tonight. 1) They have matched their highest win total of any year since 1945. It seems likely-if-not-certain that the Cubs will reach the post season with the best record that most of us have seen in our life-times. 2) They've ensured that, at the worst, they will have split the season series with the Mets this year.
I've said a few times now that Pat Hughes is calling these games on his own because Ron Santo hates NYC. In fact, I suspect that he's had a few experiences there in his life time that could easily have been the basis for one of the greatest Simpsons episodes of all time - The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson, best known for how Homer left the city while driving a car with no windshield, behind a garbage truck which was spewing trash all over him:
Lisa: Oh, Dad, I loved it there! Can we come back someday?
Homer: Maybe we will, sweetie. Maybe we will.
Tomorrow morning, we'll post my first podcast in months. In that hour-long monstrocity, you'll hear me say "I think one of the playoff spots should go to Chad Gaudin." I may have even called it a "no-brainer, if his back is up to it." I probably even said "aside from one bad outing when he was Lou's whipping boy, he's been lights out." Oh man, I was wrong.
In just 16 pitches, Chad Gaudin probably hard-tossed his way right out of Lou's post season plans. He took what had been a tied game and turned it into a route. They could have put a cage in front of the mound and given Gaudin a bucket full of baseballs, and it would've been identical to what you might see before the start of most games. It was brutal.
But, hey, on the bright side, the Cubs scored 2 runs on Johan Santana in 8 innings of work. Actually, perhaps the best thing they did was rattle off 7 hits, which doesn't seem like a lot until you remember that Santana is a force of nature on the mound. Johan got his 15th win of the season, the Cubs got good days from Kosuke Fukudome (surprisingly) and Reed Johnson (predictably, as he seems to be the only guy in baseball who regularly hits effectively against Santana). Derrek Lee had his 40th double of the year, Sean Marshall went 5 innings and struck out 7 on 71 pitches, and Mets stay alive to fight another day.
A few minutes ago, Goat Friend and Iowa broadcaster Jon Miller voiced an opinion that I have shared on numerous occasions. The Mets in the playoffs is a good thing, because wherever they go, they are followed by a fleet of ambulances. A team as injury prone as the Mets cannot be seen as a serious threat in the playoffs, and for that reason alone they would make good first round opponents against the Cubs.
- Nobody, especially Ron Santo, wants to see the Cubs get eliminated by the Mets. It could theoretically be very stressful.
- Johan Santana is dominating and in a 5 game series, he'd see 2 starts. Hell, the Mets might even pitch him in Game 4 if it comes to that.
- I sure was excited to see the Cubs face the Marlins in '03. They were my preferred NLCS opponent. I was so painfully wrong.
Moments of panic aside, the Mets really would be "good" playoff opponents. While Santana is a true threat, there are other good teams out there with even better pitching. If they manage to sneak in, pity any team that has to face Brandon Webb, Randy Johnson, and Dan Haren, and Johan won't win a series on his own.
Besides, Lou Piniella is a student of the rope-a-dope, and I'd expect the Cubs to step up and score more than 2 against Santana the next time they face him. Maybe I'm being a little ridiculous, but I just have a feeling that next time, the Cubs will use better players than Ronny Cedeno, Casey McGehee, Henry Blanco, and Koss-kay, while the Mets will be trying to recover from the burn-out factor of not cliching until the last few days of the season.
Just think of the embarrassment. Think of the shame. Your name is Jon Niese. You're running hard, making your first cup of coffee count. You're thrust into the key position of starting the first of a four game series that very well may determine if your team reaches the playoffs. You are playing a team with a history of getting their asses handed to them the first time they face a left-handed starter.
And then, you give up a granny to their pitcher who isn't Carlos Zambrano. Aw, snap. The humiliation. The Cubs took the Mets for a ride tonight, and Jon Niese was the bus they rode on. Were it not for the Marquis 4th inning smacker, the Cubs would have been offensively meh-diocre tonight. Their first two hitters combined to go 0 for 10, but the bottom of the Cubs lineup delivered. 10 of the team's 14 hits came from hitters 5 and after. Middle infielders Mark DeRosa and Ryan Theriot had 3-hit games. Derrek Lee smacked his 20th of the season.
Oh, and with 6 likely games remaining, the Cubs have locked in home field advantage, and are 2 wins away from the most they've had since our oldest readers were children. The Cubs won 96 games in 1984, and that was the most since they won 98 in 1945. I think it's fair to suggest that the Cubs could go 4-2 the rest of the way out and finish with 99 wins. Which would be appropriate and perhaps predictable, since they would never play that last, 162nd game. But I digress.
We have to give props to Jason Marquis. Up until the 7th inning, he had the Mets tied up in loops. He won his 11th this season, and while he finished the game having surrendered 4 earned runs on 8 hits and 4 walks, he got 'er done. I think it's fair to say that the Cubs wouldn't have won without him. ::cough::grandslam::cough::
Now, here's the interesting thing. After having taken a ridiculously comfortable lead, Lou Piniella turned to his 3 best relievers - Samardzija, Marmol, and Wood (who got save 33 tonight). This befuddled some of us - GA Hill included - although I maintain that regardless of the situation, Lou needs to keep his Cubs pitchers fresh. He can't let them get rusty just because the Cubs don't technically need to win another game this year.
That said, I'll be disappointed to see any of those three pitchers throw tomorrow. Save them until Wednesday. Then, on Wednesday, regardless of the situation, pitch at least 2 of them. Then, skip them on Thursday. Maybe close a game or two with Samardzija. This is the time to take steps to prepare for all kinds of post season situations, am I right?
Anyway, the Cubs have clinched home field advantage, but more important is this - the distance between them and any other team is wide, and it's getting wider. It's not even close. I know I've said it before, and I'll say it now: these guys are good.
In a game of absolutely not consequence, in which we could charitably claim that one starter started (the combined presence of Fukudome and Fontenot...two halves make a whole), the Cubs still won. So either the entire Cubs organization is really awesome, or the Cardinals just suck.
I'm not sure which gives me more joy.
So the heros ended up being Casey McGehee (yes, I had to look up that spelling) and Kosuke, Ronnie Cedeno and Felix Pie. A cavalcade of All-Stars, no doubt (wait, Kosuke was an All-Star! Who knew!). And yet, despite all that, the Cubs still won. God, the Cubs rule.
I think the most amazing thing out of all this is that Dempster ended up with 17 wins on the season (I suppose he might have a shot at 18, dunno). This is one of those great situations where nobody could have predicted this and anyone who claims to have done so is a drity, dirty liar. We've gone all season and Dempster revealed himself to be the ace. It's a crazy world.
The Cubs finish the regular season with 55 home wins, the most since 1935. The Cubs still have an outside shot at 100 wins. The Cubs have three aces and we have a poll up debate which should go first.
This is an amazing team and this is certainly my preferred form of hangover.
This was a game with a little bit of everything. Cubs starting pitcher Rich Harden had no-hit (but unfortunately, not no-walk) stuff. Jim Edmonds demonstrated that even if there's not a whole lot of gas left in the tank, it's still possible to go a while on fumes. Geovany Soto has already accomplished enough to win the Rookie of the Year Award - and today, he cemented the growing evidence that he's the best catcher in the game. Kerry Wood donned his leopard-print leotard and went back up on the wire again. And Derrek Lee thrilled us by taking it all home in the 12th.
First, Rich Harden. Considering the leeway that the home plate ump was giving Milwaukee pitchers, either Harden wasn't getting the same shake or he was really wild. Either way, Chicago Cubs Ace 2.0 Rich Harden only managed to go 5 innings. The Brewers couldn't hit the guy very well - they only got 1 - but he walked 6 of them while also striking out 7. Whatever the reason for his lack of control, he left with a 1 run lead (thanks for the solo homeruns, Jim Edmonds and Aramis Ramirez), but Cubs rookie reliever Jeff Samardzija got beaten like a drum in the 6th after Mark DeRosa made a fielding error. The Brewers notched 3 straight singles, Samardz walked 2 in the inning (3 if you count Prince, who they put on intentionally), and it looked as though the Cubs were not going to cut their magic number down on this day.
The Brewers tacked on an insurance run in the 9th off of Neal "The Luster's Off" Cotts, and it would have been 2 runs but Alfonso Soriano racked up his 10th assist of the season by gunning out J.J. Hardy. Insert link to timely "I love Alfonso Soriano" article here.
Then - then! - in the bottom of the 9th, with our hope extinguished like a candle's flame in the wind, with 2 outs in the fricking inning Jim Edmonds singled in Aramis Ramirez, Mark DeRosa reached also via a single, and Geovany Soto hit what we will refer to as an Epic Home Run.
Now, me, at this point, I'm not watching the game. It's not that I had given up per se, it's just that it was dinner time, I was hungry, and so there was no game for me. When, after dinner, I scampered to a TV and saw what was happening, I immediately got back into the game only to find ...
Kerry Wood, still doing his best Rod Beck, pitched 2 innings tonight. The first inning was one of sheer dominance. He faced 3 batters, he struck them all out, and deciding to let it ride, Lou sent him back out to pitch the 12th. Woody proceeded to surrender a leadoff single, then a double, and only then did he buckle down and get 3 outs.
Look, I'm a huge Kerry Wood fan. I also happen to be a fan of quiet 9th innings. Maybe I jumped the gun a little in the shoutbox, when I essentially said "NO MORE WOOD!" However, I am concerned, because a blown save 2 weeks from now could be season destroying. Now, I'm not sure if it's simply been a long season and Wood is tired, or if perhaps he's seen a little too much inactivity as of late, but Lou needs to get a regimen going in which Kerry is pitching one inning every two days from here until October, no matter the situation. Keep him fresh, keep him rested, and keep him loose. If I see Wood throwing 2 innings again, or back-to-back games again, I'm going to find Lou and I will confiscate his sammich.
Anyway, Woody got out of it, amazingly, and in the bottom of the 12th the Cubs worked some more of that 2 out magic. Darryl Ward drew a leadoff walk, Jason Marquis pinch ran, Reed Johnson bunted him to second, the Fonz was put on intentionally, and, after Ryan Theriot got the second out of the inning, Derrek Lee stepped up.
At this point, I was watching the game intently. I called C. into the room, as she's a huge D.Lee fan, mostly because I knew what was about to happen. When he singled in the winning run and was mobbed by his overjoyed teammates, I was the least surprised person you could've met. The Cubs win, the magic number is reduced, it's time to finish this thing already.
Series Recap: It coulda been a sweep. I'm not complaining, not one bit, but after the Cubs #3 pitcher beat the Brewers ace, and after the Brewers second ace left a game early yesterday, it became this team's series to lose. Thankfully, they didn't.
The Cubs next host the Cardinals. It will be the final series of the season at Wrigley Field. St. Louis is playing the Reds tonight in order to get out of a 7 game losing streak, and whether they win or extend their losing streak, they will be coming to Chicago tomorrow a broken team.
This has been a very fulfilling season. There have certainly been nervous moments, but they have been outweighed by the thrills. I'm looking forward to a clinching victory as early as tomorrow. It will happen soon, folks. Very soon.
Current Record: 92-59
Position in the NL Central: 1st place, 9 games in front of Milwaukee and 12 ahead of Houston
Best Possible Record: 103-59
Worst Possible Record: 92-70
On Pace For: 99-63
Magic Number: 2, as powered by CubsMagicNumber.com
It was a perfect opportunity for the Cubs to bring their magic number to 2. Ben Sheets, Brewers Ace 2.0 leaves the game - and possibly ends his season - in the 2nd inning. This leaves the Cubs in the "competent" hands of a mediocre Brewers bullpen - 7 different Milwaukee relievers were used last night, and last I checked, they only have 2 or 3 good relievers on their team.
In other words, the Cubs should have demolished them, right? Wrong. Jason Marquis was on the hill.
For you new readers, Jason Marquis has a number of nicknames on this blog. Mostly we just call him the Marquis de Suck, but another appropriate - if not less funny - nickname might be Hendry's Folly. Although the Cubs already look built to compete again next season, Jim will have a few moves to make before '09 rolls around. For example, will he roll the dice and bring back Dempster? And if he brings back Dempster, will Samardzija get a shot at starting? And if the Notre Dame phenom is going to get his shot, then who does he replace in the rotation? The answer, obviously, is Jason Marquis, the weakest link.
Last night, Hendry's Folly* made it easy for the Brewers by allowing a 3-run first inning. Admittedly, he buckled down after that and pitched into the 6th without allowing another run, but the damage was already done. Marquis exited in the 6th, and In the 7th, his white flag replacement Angel Guzman saw fit to pitch in-game batting practice to Milwaukee.
(*still a year remaining on that albatross of a contract, hurray)
Even had the Cubs offense taken advantage of the early departure of Ben Sheets, it may have been a little much asking for them to overcome the 6 runs scored by the Brewers. However, the only real offensive production they had last night came from an Aramis Ramirez solo shot in the 2nd, and a Ryan Theriot ground-out RBI in the 9th. The Cubs offense only managed 6 hits and 3 walks, but they will face a depleted Brewers pitching staff tonight, led by Dave Bush. Bush is 9-10 with a 4.24 ERA, and he is currently 0-2 with an 8.23 ERA against the Cubs this year.
I'm sure we will all look forward to the Cubs finishing this thing sooner rather than later. The offense needs to come alive tonight, and with Bush pitching and the Milwaukee pen worn out, it could get real ugly real fast.
Tonight was the death blow. If the Cubs win tomorrow, it's the cheap shot.
It actually wasn't easy. In fact, it was rather dramatic. Sure, the Cubs started off by doing what they do best - pummeling an otherwise unbeatable CC Sabathia - but then they finished the game off by doing that other thing they do best - getting past by the skin of their flippin' teeth.
First and foremost, the lineup did what it was supposed to do. Hitters 1-4 were responsible for 8 of the team's 11 hits. Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, they all drove in runs. In fact, at one point the Cubs were up on the "Unbeatable" C.C. Sabathia by a score of 3-0, right up until Prince Fielder decided to lunch... er, launch a two-run homer into the bleachers.
But then, when all hope was lost, Alfonso Soriano stepped up and hit his own dinger, giving the Cubs a comfortable 2-run lead. Which was promptly ... well, squashed by Prince Fielder, who, uh, sat on a Carlos Marmol heater and knocked it into the bleachers. And yet, again, dissatisfied with a mere 1-run lead, Hank White made a pinch hit appearance in the bottom of the 8th and gave the Cubs a huge insurance run.
Naturally, the 9th inning was as dramatic as you'd expect it to be. Kerry Wood continues to scare the crap out of skittish Cub fans everywhere. After striking out the leadoff hitter, Wood surrendered a single to pinch hitter Mike Lamb, before getting out number 2, only for Ray Durham - of all jabrones! - to hit a run-scoring double. Wood then gave up an infield single to Ryan Braun before turning things back over to the 3-4, 2 homer, 3 RBI Prince Fielder.
As Wood reached back and heaved pitch after pitch, eventually reaching a ... well, full count on the fat man, I could only imagine Cub fans everywhere yelling the following:
I was on IM with Jason at the time, saying "huh, full count? Wood should toss him a sick breaking pitch because, worst case scenario, he walks him and faces a less-dangerous hitter." Wood then tossed a sick breaking pitch and struck Fielder out to end the game. Yep. Sometimes I'm very good at pretending that I know what I'm talking about.
Real credit has to go to Ryan Dempster. Clownsevelt has been putting in a year-long effort to prove that he's ace material. On this Cubs team, he remains the 3rd option for any playoff series, but tonight he proved to me that he could out-duel anybody else's #1 guy.
The magic number is now down to 4. The Cubs are on a 5 game winning streak. The Brewers are down for the count. There's two weeks left of baseball before it gets really exciting. This is what we've been waiting for, folks. I don't know about you, but I'm enjoying it.
Houston's got to be pissed. There they were, on a ridiculous hot streak, beating teams left and right, and suddenly a hurricane named Ike and a commissioner named Bud brought their party to a screeching halt.
2 games and 18 innings later, the Astros achieved a whopping solitary hit while the Cubs took advantage of how the neutral series ground was actually Wrigley North.
In today's annihilation, Ted Lilly threw 7 innings on 85 pitches. He allowed 1 hit - only 1! - walked 1 Astro, and struck out 9. And while Lilly was mowing them down, the Cubs offense delivered on some big hits. Jim Edmonds hit his 18th homerun of the year, Derrek Lee smacked number 19, and Geovany Soto hit his 22nd. But the best part about it - all but 1 of the homeruns hit today had runners on.
It is true that Lou Piniella tried to make things interesting late in the game. He called on Samardzija, who only recorded 1 out while walking 2. More dastardly, Lou turned to Bob Howry in the 9th. I remarked at the time to Jon Miller that Lou was trying to turn it into a save situation for Kerry Wood.
Series Recap: Perhaps the best, single word to describe this series is "surreal." The Cubs played a road series against Houston in Milwaukee, where they proceeded to obliterate the formerly hottest team in baseball while turning around an abysmal downward spiral that had led more than one Cub fan into jumping off the ledge.
More importantly, after going 1-8 during a stretch that began on August 30th and ended on September 9th, the Cubs have gone 5-2 from a stretch beginning on Sept 6 to tonight. The Cubs are also riding another winning streak, this one at 4 games, and they find themselves in the position of landing the death blow against the flailing Brewers, who could be eliminated as soon as Thursday.
It's a cool situation, really. Here we were, panicking about how the Cubs would have a rough road this month, including 6 against the "surgin' Brewers," and now we are looking at it from the other end. The Cubs are in position to keep the Brewers out of the playoffs all together.
Current Record: 90-58
Position in the NL Central: 1st place, 8 games in front of Milwaukee and 10.5 ahead of Houston
Best Possible Record: 104-58
Worst Possible Record: 90-72
On Pace For: 98-64
Magic Number: 6, as powered by CubsMagicNumber.com