Just a quick one tonight as I have to get to scampering ...
It is early August and the Cubs persist on having the best record in the National League. That doesn't mean that people aren't nervous. The Dodgers - who seem to know the secrets to shutting down the Cubs offense - feel like a playoff team. The Marlins - who beat the Cubs in '03 and have maintained a stranglehold on them since - just might surprise everybody in the East. And the Brewers, well, let's be honest. Nobody is afraid of the Brewers.
Let's jump into this series:
Monday, August 4th Ryan Dempster (12-4, 2.91 ERA) vs. Brian Moehler (6-4, 4.23 ERA)
This game is in progress as I blog, but I'm trying to ignore it so as not to taint my objectivity. That said, I predict the Cubs will score fast and furiously, and erupt to a huge lead before the 3rd inning. Wait, what? Erm, never-mind.
In reality, Ryan Dempster and the Cubs would do fine if they remembered one important rule - never, ever, ever pitch to Carlos Lee. Carlos Lee is an alumni of the Cub Killer squad, and he bats comfortably between Adam Dunn and Mike Schmidt. However, the Cubs remain an offensively explosive team, and while they are currently trailing, I would be surprised if the score wasn't a little less anemic before the end of the night.
Tuesday, August 5th Rich Harden (1-1, 1.11 ERA) vs. Wandy Rodriguez (6-4, 3.61 ERA)
Harden has been hard-luck since coming to Chicago, but he remains #1 in our hearts. Get it? #1? He's 1-1 with a 1.11 ERA? Guh, never mind. Harden has become the best pitcher on the Cubs staff. When he came to Wrigleyville, as there were concerns that his arm is a ticking time-bomb, there was talk that the Cubs would rest him whenever possible, that they'd keep him on a low pitch count, and that they'd either skip his turn or give him an extra day's rest as often as they could. Well, that hasn't happened yet. However, if any team knows an arm injury waiting to happen, it's this one, and you have to figure that the Cubs staff are keeping a close eye on Harden's health.
Wandy Rodriguez, meanwhile, has a really funny first name. I'm sorry, I'll never get over it.
Wednesday, August 6th Jason Marquis (6-7, 4.68 ERA) vs. Brandon Backe 6-10, 4.72 ERA)
I'm not sure if I could have envisioned a better match-up for Marquis. If ever there was a pitcher he could out-duel, it's Brandon Backe. Both pitchers put the meh in mehdiocre (what do you mean it's a typo?), and I would expect this to be a very high scoring, rollicking affair in which the Cubs pull alway with a massive, 18-12 victory, or something equally absurd.
The Cubs have the ability to win every series they play this month. Point of fact, they sort of need to, because they have a great opportunity to pull deeply ahead of the Brewers and Cardinals. The Astros are not easy to beat, though. They have a good offense and a better-than-mediocre pitching staff, and Carlos Lee has a well-knotched belt which symbolizes the number of times he's killed the Cubs.
It could be a close series, or it could be an ugly one. So far, the Cubs are losing 2-0. I doubt that will remain the case. Point of fact, I'm pretty certain it won't. This series should see a lot of runs, and most of them should be scored by the Cubs.
It's been a while since the Cubs played the Pirates. When last they met, Pittsburgh managed to squeak out a couple of close wins, although the Cubs can still thank Pittsburgh for their huge run differential, as they've lit up the Pirates staff like they're firecrackers. The Cubs are presently clicking on all cylinders, riding a 5-game winning streak, and the Pirates have just sent their greatest offensive asset to the Red Sox for a plague of prospects who are not likely to have an impact in the NL Central for a year or more, if ever at all based on the Pirates' past luck. Let's take a look at the match-ups:
The Pitching Match-Ups:
Friday, August 1st Jason Marquis (6-6, 4.68 ERA) vs. Jeff Karstens (First Appearance this year)
Ah yes, the weak link of the Cubs rotation opens the series by squaring off against a newly acquired Yankees prospect with a career ERA of 5.65 in 57.1 innings of work.
Marquis has been exactly what we thought he'd be - inconsistent leaning toward terrible. He is, at best, the 6th best starter on the squad, and he may even be the 7th. However, the cost of his contract pretty much guarantees his placement in the rotation, and at this point I have to think that we mostly agree that the Cubs could very well be better off had Hendry never signed him.
Karstens, on the other hand, has yet to not struggle at the Major League level. His minor league totals aren't outstanding either - he's 44-31 in 113 games pitched with an ERA of 3.52. Hey, you never know, he might be starting pitcher material, but he's not about to bust out against this Cubs offense. Marquis be damned, I like the Cubs chances today.
Saturday, August 2nd Ted Lilly (10-6, 4.49 ERA) vs. Paul Maholm (7-6, 3.79 ERA)
Hard to believe that Lilly's ERA is only 0.19 runs better than that of Marquis. He's been working hard all year long to get that ERA to look respectable, and I am convinced that he will finish the season with an ERA in the high 3's. It can't hurt to face an offense as decimated as the Pirates.
Maholm is 26 and has seen a fair amount of success this year. He's only faced the Cubs once, in a game in which he surrendered 5 runs in 8 innings (although the Pirates still managed to win). The Cubs will be seeking revenge tomorrow.
Sunday, August 3rd Carlos Zambrano (12-4, 2.80 ERA) vs. Ian Snell (4-8, 6.04 ERA)
Zambrano, no longer the clear-cut best pitcher on the roster, looks to pad his numbers against the Pirates on Sunday. The Moose is coming off an intensely focused start against the Brewers, but he threw 118 pitches and I for one will be looking closely to see if fatigue is a factor.
Ian Snell is yet another young Pirates pitcher of questionable major league talent. He won 14 in 2006, and his best ERA was in '07 at 3.76, but this year Snell is Marquis-like in his mediocrity. In fact, one of his best starts came against the Cubs on April 18th, although the Pirates lost that game despite Snell's 6 inning, 3-run game.
Not too long ago, I was thinking about the best period of the season so far this year - May 29th through June 3rd, when the Cubs won 9 straight. I thought at the time, "why is it that good teams can win 9 straight once, but usually not twice in a season?" Maybe it's a simple thought and a stupid one, but I have been described as being both of those things in the past.
Point is, why couldn't the Cubs string together another big winning streak? Maybe the previous answer is that injuries were a contributing factor to the team's inability to win lots of games in a row, but the offense is healthy, the rotation is strong, and even without Kerry Wood, the bullpen is doing well.
In other words, I hope and believe that the Cubs can and will beat up on the Pirates some more. It should happen, it could happen, hopefully it will happen. But even if it doesn't, I still wouldn't want to be a Brewer fan right now. The Cubs have a firm grip on the NL Central, and I don't expect that to change.
Say hello to the first series of the season with real playoff implications. Earlier today, I laid out a few what-if scenarios in which I said the following: If the Cubs can win 3 of 4 on the road against the Brewers, then we can effectively declare Milwaukee dead in the water and a non-factor in the central.
In case you misunderstood, I was being just a tid-bit facetious there. Point of fact, I was making a mockery of Cub fans everywhere. You just know that, the self-defeatists that we are, if the Cubs sweep the Brewers we would be wiping the sweat from our brows, muttering phew, dodged a bullet. There would be relief, but it would only be temporary. We'd be waiting for the Cubs to take their next hit on the chin. You also just know that if the Brewers swept the Cubs, these same fans would be proclaiming that in late July, with the Cubs 3 games out of 1st place, the season would be over. Now, the last time I pointed out this self-defeatist attitude, an otherwise-loyal reader took me to task. Hey, I'm just asking - asking, not demanding - for some perspective here. The season doesn't end until the Cubs either clinch or are mathematically eliminated. Until then, it's just a whole lot of bang and clatter, folks. That said, let's take a look at this playoff-like atmosphere:
Monday, July 28th Ted Lilly (10-6, 4.49 ERA) vs. C.C. Sabathia (10-8, 3.30 ERA)
You know, this entire series so strongly resembles what it would be like should these teams meet in the playoffs that it makes my head spin a little. The match-ups are slightly off, though. Lilly would probably match up with Bush, and Harden would duel with Sabathia. Then again, if I'm the skipper, I might just fly in the face of conventional wisdom and match 'em up just like it is here. After all, Lilly is a good pitcher, albiet not a great one, but more to the point, Sabathia is a world breaker at this stage. I submit to you that if I'm the skipper, I basically say "alright, we'll give you Sabathia's start as a likely win for you, but we're lining things up so we're practically sure to win when Harden pitches."
In other words, you never know. The Cubs just might score 3 runs against Sabathia. Lilly and the bullpen just might hold the Brewers to 2. And if the Cubs win this match-up, then they are almost certain to win when Harden faces the worst starter in this series. Therefore, I'd trade a possible thing for a nearly certain thing, if that makes any sense.
No? Well, it makes sense to me.
Besides, as Cleveland Cub pointed out, Sabathia has done reaaaaaaaaal bad in the playoffs. If this is truly at all like a playoff series tonight, he's gonna choke.
Tuesday, July 29th Carlos Zambrano (11-4, 2.96 ERA) vs. Ben Sheets (10-3, 2.87 ERA)
Another huge match-up. Carlos would likely face Sheets in the playoffs. Both are aces, both can shut down an offense, but Sheets has the luxury of pitching at home in this series. However, Carlos is now known for rising to the occasion, and if Milwaukee beats the Cubs tomorrow night, I have a feeling that it's going to be by a combined score of 4 or fewer runs.
Wednesday, July 30th Ryan Dempster (11-4, 2.99 ERA) vs. Manny Parra (9-3, 3.72 ERA)
And here's where Milwaukee starts ever-so-slightly to come unglued. Parra has been a good pitcher, don't get me wrong. But the rookie starter doesn't match-up to the Cubs Third Ace, Ryan Dempster. While Parra is certainly a good pitcher at home, the Cubs' pitching depth really plays to their advantage in this match-up.
Thursday, July 31st Rich Harden (5-2, 2.10 ERA) vs. Dave Bush (5-8, 4.51 ERA)
And, at last, the closest we have to the "sure thing." Don't get me wrong, folks, the Brewers are a tough and scary team. They have a great shot at making the playoffs this year. However, while they have as potent a 1-2 combo of aces as any team in baseball, they fall apart toward the bottom half of their rotation, they are relying on a journeyman closer, and they otherwise have a grand total of two relievers who you can count on in a game - one a 39-year-old lefty, the other a 27-year-old rookie who entirely lacks in experience.
For all those reasons, I have to suggest that Milwaukee is a paper tiger, or a glass dragon, or whatever the hell else you'd like to call them. They're short. They're shallow. They have no depth. The Cubs are going to kill these guys.
I will grant you this, and only because I am trying to cover my bases, this series is no sure thing for the Cubs. Offensively, they've been slumping and they are now about to face three of the most dangerous pitchers that they'll see for a while. So, while anything could happen in the next four games, I have to say that for the next two months, I really like the Cubs' chances.
Manlove for Smorgasbord
Before I leave you to watch a great game, I thought I'd contribute a few thoughts to the new Cub Savior, Jeff Smardzija. This guy has only pitched in 2 games - one of which he blew a save which eventually cost the Cubs the game. He's got a reputation for walking too many hitters. He's really not done well at any level he's pitched at. And yet, we love the guy already. Why is that?
In part, it's because he's got talent. He can viciously mix speeds. He strikes guys out. He's tall. Some feel that he's underperformed in the minors due in part to boredom. He has an air about him, like he belongs at the Majors, and if he can continue to pitch as he has been, then the Cubs just might have a new set-up man to compliment Marmol - if they don't have a new #5 pitcher to replace Marquis.
Regardless, at Jason's suggestion, I have crafted the following photoshop depicting just how Lou Piniella feels about the guy. Enjoy.
The Cubs probably didn't want to start the second half 2-4. They also probably didn't want that to coincide with a seven game winning streak for the Brewers. Again, I could be wrong about both those things, but I believe them to be safe bets. But facts are what facts are and life is what life is and a one game lead with 61 games to go is nothing more than that. And in related news, and apple is an apple, a cat is a cat, and a monkey who doesn't throw his poo is hardly a monkey at all.
I could go on, but I believe my point has been made. Right? Right.
The mediocre Marlins are now coming into Chicago for a four game set and have as much on the line as the Cubs. They sit a scant one game behind the Phillies and Mets who are tied for the NL East lead and the Marlins the advantage of watching those two teams beat up on each other. This is a great opportunity for the Marlins and so we know they'll be all lathery and feisty and, just possibly, all mojo'd up. So the Cubs will have to be sharp this weekend if they want to keep the Brewers in their rightful place: Second.
Luckily, the rotation is set up to demonstrate the firepower of this fully armed and operational
battle station rotation (erm, sorry, got a little carried away there. Had a little nerdgasm. Speaking of which, see Dark Knight).
Cubs vs. Marlins
Thursday, July 24th, 7:05 PM CT
Carlos Zambrano vs. Scott Olsen - Carlos wasn't particularly sharp in his first post-All-Star break outing after having looked so very sharp after coming off the disabled list (including the All-Star game itself). I'm chalking this up to the same post-All-Star game hangover that has spread throughout the team*. I fully expect Zambrano to regain his control and return to the dominant force that we know and love (making him the subject of many a non-sexual man crush).
(* Scrappy white guys appear immune )
Scott Olsen goes for the Marlins and has been pretty good so far, although without those sexy peripherals I like. He strikes out too few and walks too many, but that hasn't stopped him from compiling a solid sub-four ERA. Of course, it helps when you play in a hitting vortex like Dolphins Stadium as Olsen has an ERA around five on the road. Looks like a good matchup for the Cubs on paper, but that's why they play the play the game on grass (not paper).
(Actually, that's not entirely true. They could play the game on little torn up bits of paper, but then they would be kind of like hamsters and, while that's fine in and of itself, I think it would be a little odd to see them drinking out of those little bottles that hang outside down. I'm not sure how they feel about ceder chips, but I believe the fielders would have a hard time getting true hops)
Friday, July 25th, 1:20 PM CT
Ryan Dempster vs. Josh Johnson
Dempster was outstanding in his last start and is now 11-4 with a 3.05 ERA. And who thought Dempster would even win as many as 11 games all season, let alone with an ERA hovering around 3? Hmm? That's right, you all should be ashamedof yourself for doubting that Dempster would be anything less than an All-Star this year. You didn't see this coming because you are nothing but a Doubting Thomas and a Negative Nancy and, I'm sorry to say, a Hemmoraging Harold (that last one isn't so much a personality issue as something you should probably get looked at before you bleed out).
Because I totally saw this coming. Because I'm awesome.
Josh Johnson has pitched in all of two games and, unless he was also drafted by the San Diego Padres, I have nothing to say. Except that he got his hair cut and it's on the internet. With a comment expressing disappointment at this fact.
Maybe Buzz Bissinger was right.
Okay, running out of time before work. Speed round!
Saturday, July 26th, 12:05 PM CT
Rich Hardin vs. Chris Volstad
Harden...so good. Can't...find words. So. Beautiful. Should have sent...a poet.
Volstad has had an excellent first 16 innings. Here's to things evening out.
Sunday, July 27th, 1:20 PM ET
Jason Marquis vs. Rick VandenHurk
Marquis has actually been solid of late, although still quite unspectacular. Since he's apparently going to be in the rotation, I'll take it.
VandenHurk has the kind of name that makes me want to punch him in the face. And why isn't the "D" capitalized?
Okay, time to get things turned around. Welcome home, Cubs. Now get some wins.
As happens from time to time when people get busy, we failed to deliver unto you a timely preview or recap. Hell, we're only 3 hours away from the second game of the series and you still don't know the Cubs chances because we haven't written about it yet!! I know! It's crazy!
Let's do it in the reverse this time - we'll recap yesterday's game and then preview the pending twofer.
Game Recap: Arizona 2, Cubs 0
If Randy Johnson only pitched against the Cubs in his career, he would certainly have a better record than Cy Young. He has, does, and always will own the Cubs. Even in this, a season in which Johnson has clearly lost whatever he had that made him great, and, more importantly, a season in which the Cubs have one of the best teams in recent memory, and El Gordo Unito still dominates. So much for my clearly optimistic photoshop of Johnson as a human punching bag:
Once you discount the fact that the Cubs lost and were made to look like tools, it was a pretty good game. Rich Harden stepped in and, without an apparent pitch count, threw 112 pitches in 7 innings, giving up a solitary hit, walking 2, and striking out 10. Unfortunately for the Cubs, the lone hit against Harden was one which landed in a mass of bodies, and that was enough for the Cubs to lose.
Oh, also, Bob Howry has continued to prove himself irreverent. He had another shoddy outing in the 9th. Chad Gaudin, the Cubs are calling your number. Please step up to the set-up role.
Tuesday, July 22nd, Jason Marquis (6-5, 4.44 ERA) vs. Yusmeiro Petit (0-1, 3.06 ERA)
Want to hear something strange? When I looked to the upcoming schedule and saw the name "Marquis," I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Somehow, a part of me had forgotten Marquis is a Cub. To see him scheduled to pitch tonight was a tremendous disappointment. You know, had I been the guy scheduling the rotation, I would have flipped Marquis with Harden. You know from experience that it's going to be tough beating Randy Johnson, why waste Harden's arm on a heart-breaker? Anyway, Marquis is trying to carry momentum into this start, although he may have trouble doing so as I expect that he's shocked to learn that he has momentum. The Big Jason won 4 games last month to only 1 loss, while compiling an ERA of 4.91. So far in July, Marquis is 0-1 but with a 1.29 ERA as, like Lilly, he has found it hard to win games when his team has scored an average of 1 run per start.
Yusmeiro Petit, on the other hand, is one in a long line of pitchers who have both silly names and the ability to wipe that smile off your face real quickly. Petit is a young pitcher with a career ERA of 5.61, and in particular, through 17.2 innings of work this year his ERA is 3.06. He's only walked 1 guy to 11 strikeouts, he was pretty damn good in his only start this year, and ESPN says that his name is pronounced "Puh-TEET."
Wednesday, July 23rd, Ted Lilly (9-6, 4.49 ERA) vs. Doug Davis (3-4, 4.14 ERA)
Theodore Roosevelt Lilly looks to win his 10th game of the year against Doug Davis, who shockingly just isn't pitching up to the level he delivered against the Cubs last October. Davis is neither overpowering nor even particularly effective these days, and the Cubs offense needs to wake up Dr. Phil style and take him to town tomorrow in order to compensate for the castration delivered to them by Randy Johnson last night. (Castrated by a "Randy Johnson?" Oh, sweet irony!)
Lilly has yet to win a game this month, although his ERA has been a reasonable 4.04 through 3 starts. If you pretend that the July 10th game against the Reds never happened*, then you may observe that Lilly has pitched pretty well this month, but has received next-to-no run support from the Cubs offense.
(*Note: it's probably not a good thing when you have to flat-out pretend that five or six of your pitcher's starts simply never happened. Not exactly the biggest lender of confidence.)
Predictions: The Cubs really need to get their offense into gear. It's a sad, shameful day when a 44 year old man with no cartilage in his knee can make your team look that bad, but Randy Johnson did it. Maybe we should just accept that the Cubs can not, and never will beat the Big Unit, or maybe we should be worried about a team that has scored exactly 2 runs in 3 of the 4 games played since the All Star Break.
It's hard to put my faith in the arm of Jason Marquis. You might as well ask me to flush myself down the toilet. But the Cubs are only holding a 2-run lead in the Central, and with the bitterly despised Marlins coming up on the schedule, a little momentum would be a nice thing. So, you know, maybe they should just buckle down and blow out the D-Backs tonight on the back of a Marquis shut-out. And maybe moneybags will fall from the sky. Anything's possible.
Had a good break? Lord knows it felt too long to me.
The Cubs will be on the road for the next six days, playing such thrilling teams as the last place Houston Astros, and the first-by-a-nose Arizona Diamond-backs. The Astros, who were a good team for a very long time, have been struggling fiercely this summer. They are 44-51, 13 games behind the Cubs, and aside from the heroic output of Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee, the team is mostly comprised by a bunch of empty shirts. Which isn't to say that Berkman and Lee aren't dangerous enough to win games for those guys - they just go to show that not even a team with two terrific hitters can compete if they can't manage two above average starting pitchers. Anyway, on to the match-ups:
The Pitching Match-Ups:
Friday, July 18th - Ted Lilly (9-6, 4.68 ERA) vs. Brian Moehler (5-4, 4.28 ERA)
On paper, this doesn't look like too bad of a match-up for the Astros. Moehler has a 3.97 ERA as a starting pitcher this year, and while the 36-year-old isn't about to pitch his way into the Hall of Fame, he's had a couple of very steady months for the Astros. Unfortunately for Houston, one of those steady months hasn't been July - he's been man-handled in his 2 starts this month, against the Pirates and Braves. Plus, in his last start against the Cubs, he was chased after 5 innings en route to a Cubs 7-2 victory.
Lilly, meanwhile, continues the long, arduous task of bringing his ERA back to a respectable level. He's been laboring to accomplish that feat ever since the end of April, and he hasn't done himself many favors in his last two outings. Lilly was chased quickly by the Reds on the 10th, and he's looking for a rebound win here.
Saturday, July 19th - Carlos Zambrano (10-3, 2.84 ERA) vs. Wandy Rodriguez (4-3, 3.48 ERA)
The Big Moose is back, and he's out for vengeance... not that Houston has done anything he needs to revenge. Carlos beat the Astros the last time he faced them, and so far this month he's 2-0 with an ERA of 0.64. After a 2-inning All Star outing in which he made the American League All Stars look like a bunch of buffoons, Carlos will look to carry that momentum into the second game of the second half.
Wandy Rodriguez, meanwhile, has a very silly name. I'm not sure if he's a pitcher or a male porn star. What he has been, however, is a steady arm on a crappy Astros squad. He had a great June, posting a 2.38 ERA, but in 3 starts in July it would appear as though his magical wandy - heh, bad pun - has broken, as he has an ERA of 6.89. He hasn't faced the Cubs this year.
Sunday, July 20th - Ryan Dempster (10-4, 3.25 ERA) vs. Brandon Backe (6-9, 4.76 ERA)
It's the unstoppable force vs. the immovable object. Ryan Dempster, who has yet to win a game on the road all year long, takes on Brandon Backe, who's managed a mere 3 wins at home while posting a near-5 ERA. If Clownsevelt is to be relied upon at all in October, then the Cubs will need to know that he has the capacity to win outside of Wrigley Field. Mostly, it's been bad luck that's stopped him - he's 0-3 in 8 starts on the road, and his ERA is 4.03. As a team, the Cubs are 3-5 in his road game starts, and part of the problem has been that they have struggled to mount an offense during those games. There is perhaps no better place than Houston to reverse those fortunes, and Dempster is very, very overdue for a win.
Even though it's on the road, there's nothing quite as comforting as opening the second half by playing the worst team in your division. The Cubs could and should manhandle the Astros. However, the real story of the coming week won't be this series, or even the next one against Arizona. It will be the looming return of Alfonso Soriano, who may be only a week away.
At the very least, Dempster should get his first road victory of the year, and I also predict that, if Lou turns to Marmol in yet another blowout, the heads of Cub fans everywhere will pop like corks from champagne bottles.
It looks like this article is going to be a whole bunch of things scrunched into one. That's the price we pay when the Cubs inconveniently play an opening game of a series during the middle of a work day.
The San Francisco Giants used to be a good team. Point of fact, over an 8 year span they averaged 92 wins a season, they made 4 playoff appearances, and they even got to lose a World Series. I'm sure there are a lot of Cub fans out there who'd make a Faustian deal for those kinds of results - after all, when you're a Cubs fan, even a World Series defeat would be amazing - and that's pretty much what the Giants did. They went to a crossroads at midnight, they sacrificed some virgins and murmured some chants, and when the devil finally appeared he was carrying a briefcase full of 'roids. Unfortunately for the Giants, the life of the deal has ended and Karma has reversed their fortunes - San Fran's been averaging 74 wins a year these past 3 seasons, and they're on pace to win under 70 this year. You know your team is screwed when your top offensive superstar is on pace to hit about 14 homeruns and your multi-million dollar ace has lost 12 games before the All Star Break. Yep, that's Fog Town these days. They might as well rename their ballpark:
The Pitching Match-Ups
Friday, July 11th Matt Cain vs. Jason Marquis
What do you get when you mix a 23-year-old righty who's already logged 560+ career innings and had an ERA of 3.65 last year and still lost 16 with the crappiest Cubs starter? Apparently, you get a duel. We'll get to that later, so read on.
Saturday, July 12th, Dick Harden vs. Kevin Correria
Kevin Correria is the poor schmuck tapped by the Giants to pitch in what will surely be an electric game at Wrigley Field. So far this year, Correria is 1-5 with a 4.96 ERA, and in his last outing against the Cubs on July 2nd, he gave up 4 earned runs in 6.1 innings of work en route to a Cubs 6-5 victory.
He faces the already-legendary Rich Harden, a man whose immense talent is dwarfed only by his incredibly fragile arm. It's a little too early to do much more than worry and wonder about what his health will be like for the remainder of the year, but the Cubs appear to be planning a strict regimen of pitch counts, they plan on giving him 5 days rest whenever possible, and they have apparently brought in a hypnotist who will regularly put Harden under and tell him that he feels no pain and must cluck like a chicken anytime Lou curses. In other words, it's going to be a weird, interesting second half.
Sunday, July 13th Ryan Dempster vs. Tim Lincecum
It seems likely that Dempster's final start before the break will keep him out of the All Star Game in the middle of next week, although I am obviously only guessing. Regardless, this will be the toughest game of the series for the Cubs as Dempster looks to continue his home game dominance against the one good pitcher the Giants have. It's safe to say that any team in baseball would love to have Lincecum in their rotation, as the 24-year-old righty is 10-2 this season with a 2.66 ERA and 126 strikeouts in 121.2 innings of work. The last time he won this season was against the Cubs, who he held to 3 runs in 6 innings of work. Dempster has his work cut out for him.
Predictions: Well, I believe it is safe to say that the Cubs won't get swept.
That said, the Giants will make it hard on the Cubs to be swept, too. Something I said yesterday was that, in any given series, the Cubs have the best pitcher in 2 out of 3 games. As good as Dempster has been, Lincecum has been better. That said, Dempster is 10-0 at home with a 2.58 ERA, but his opponent is 7-1 on the road with a 2.23 ERA. No matter what, it's going to be a fun game to watch.
I have a very strong suspision that Harden's debut tomorrow will be followed closely by a lot of Cub fans. I also don't expect Lou to use him beyond 6 innings. I'll make no predictions, but I will say that I haven't felt this much anxiety about a start since the days of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior circa 2004 and 2005. And, with that, onto today's Game Recap.
Who knew that Jason Marquis would find himself in a bonafide pitcher's duel today? Perhaps the recent trade for Chad Gaudin - a man who has been characterized by some as the fifth best starting pitcher on the team - has motivated Marquis to step up his game a little. Regardless of why it happened, Marquis went 4 innings before surrendering a hit today. Unfortunately for him, Matt Cain was equally effective - he held the Cubs to 3 hits and 3 walks in 7 innings of work while striking out 9.
Marquis, meanwhile, who exited after 81 pitches, also allowed only 3 hits while walking 2. Now, if you're wondering why Lou seems to rarely allow Marquis to pitch past the 7th, or to throw more than 80 or 90 pitches, then look no further than the cold, hard reality of statistics. Marquis is actually a respectable pitcher, up until he throws his 75th pitch. Teams are batting .253 against him from pitches 1-75. After that, it gets ugly - teams are hitting .380 against Marquis from pitches 76 and beyond. So, being the wily veteran manager that Lou is, he knows that he has more important things to roll dice on, like pitching Marmol for the 3rd straight day, or yelling at Carlos Zambrano on the mound in front of 40,000 screaming fans. (If Lou was afraid of taking his life into his own hands, then he wouldn't be managing the Cubs.)
Luckily for the Cubs, they have a third baseman who is clutch. Aramis Ramirez has hit more than his fair share of big homeruns in his career, and he added to that talley today. In the 8th inning, Tim Walker gave up a leadoff hit to the Quiet Theriot before Little Babe Ruth sacrified him to second. The Giants then made a ridiculous mistake - they intentionally walked Derrek Lee to get to Aramis. Ramirez proceeded to make them pay with a deep homer to left, and that would be enough to make the difference.
In the 9th, Kerry Wood proved that he could allow the leadoff man to get on base and still get a save, although he still permitted a run to score. Actually, I think Wood just wanted to make things more interesting, so he allowed the first three Giant batters to get on before mowing down "The Hope of San Francisco" Aaron Rowand and inducing a flyout and groundout to end the game.
The Cubs are now 56-37 and, thanks to Milwaukee losing yet again, they now stand 4.5 games ahead of the Cardinals and 5 games in front of the Brewers. I guess Milwaukee is learning the hard way that trading for an ace still means that they have to actually, y'know, win games. You don't just get bumped up to first place on the merits of Sabathia's talent.
Oh, and one last thought. The Cubs again have the best record in baseball. Sleep well, Cub fans. Harden pitches tomorrow.
In the excitement, I almost forgot that baseball is being played tonight. As it is thundering in Toronto tonight, we'll keep this short in order to ensure that nothing is lost to a power outage.
The first place Chicago Cubs who have the best record in the National League and just acquired the best starting pitcher available on the market for the proverbial bag of magic beans and half-bottle of rum will be hosting the Reds for three at Wrigley. Phew, long sentence.
The dominant-at-home Cubs are trotting out their three best starters - besides newly acquired Dick Harden* - against the lowly Reds. But, while we are certain that you want to know more about the series, we also know one of the big questions you've been asking that has yet to be answered. So. The answer is: Harden will be ready to pitch on July 11th in San Francisco against ex Athletic Barry Zito, and he will be replacing Sean "Trade Bait For Even More Improvements" Marshall on that day in the rotation.
(*In case you hadn't heard that they acquired him, and yes, until further notice he will be known as Dick Harden on this blog)
All that said, let's take a look at this series.
The Pitching Match-ups:
Tuesday, July 8th Ryan Dempster vs. Aaron Harang
Dempster and Harang are following opposite paths this season. Clownsevelt is 9-3 with an ERA of 3.24. Harang is 3-10 with an ERA of 4.47. Furthermore, since Harang's unfortunate relief appearance on the 25th of May, he's completely and shockingly - that's sarcasm - tanked. He's gone 1-4 in 7 starts with an ERA of 6.75.
Dempster, meanwhile, is a tough guy to face at home. He owes all 9 wins this season to the Wrigley faithful, and I'm sure he's chomping at the bit to pick up win number 10 before the break.
Wednesday, July 9th Carlos Zambrano vs. Johnny Cueto
The Big Moose is back and healthy after a shoulder scare that sent the Cub fan nation into a tizzy. Zambrano had an all-out dominating performance against the Cardinals. I'd expect him to remain on a pitch count tomorrow night, perhaps of around 150 or 160 pitches in order to ensure that his shoulder receives the proper rest and attention.
Johnny Cueto is 22 and a potential stud - should Dusty Baker not ruin his golden arm. That said, he's 22 and still figuring out the major leagues in this, his rookie season. While a 7-8 record with a 4.63 ERA is nothing to be ashamed of, Cueto will be facing the most dangerous offense in the NL tomorrow night, and hopefully the Cubs will take him for a ride that he is unlikely to forget for a long, long time.
Thursday, July 10th Ted Lilly vs. Bronson Arroyo
Theodore Roosevelt Lilly has been a vastly improved pitcher since his ridiculous 1-4 start to the season. The Cubs only lost his last game because of a now-rare blown save, and if we were to pretend that his first four starts had never happened, he would be 9-2 right now with an ERA of around 3.50.
Bronson Arroyo, meanwhile, is 6-7 with a 5.82 ERA and was considered a trade possibility for the Cubs before Jim Hendry caught Billy Beane at a moment of weakness, after the A's GM had apparently downed half a bottle of scotch. I'm sure the Cubs are both happy to have not acquired Bronson, who even at the best of times looks more constipated out there on the mounds than Tom Hanks does in his daily living, because they not only do not have to rely on him to win every 5th day, but they also get to take cracks at him on Thursday.
Predictions: Epic trades don't always instantly mean that a team will become super-charged and will suddenly start winning 70% of their games. However, Harden and Gaudin should give the Cubs a tremendous lift. And while Dick Harden may only equate statistically to around 2 or 3 wins over the course of a season - I reckon he'll probably have a similar impact as Sabathia in Milwaukee - what he specifically brings to the table is another strong and steady arm in the playoffs, while Gaudin may, in theory, help ease the load off of Marmol and Howry.
The Cubs appear to be heading in the right direction. And while Colin wisely pointed out that the Cubs 5th best starter will be in the bullpen cursing as Jason Marquis takes his turn in the rotation, the Cubs now have to be the definitive favorites to win the NL Central - if not the entire league itself.
However, I cannot help but leave you with one negative, contrary thought. After the trade went down and many Cub fans were going nuts about Harden donning a Cubs uniform, occasional GROTA guest writer Cubbiebluestew pointed out, "But this is Billy Beane. I am going to check the Dead Pool to see if Harden passed away last night." Nothing is certain, and that certainly includes the health of Dick Harden. Yet I still can't help but feel that this was a great trade. I anticipate that the Cubs will celebrate by blowing out the Reds tonight, although the score is 0-0 as I publish this post. Then again, it's only the 2nd inning. The runs will come.
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.
It's not exactly a question of which team is the most dominant anymore. That was answered a week ago in Chicago. It's more that, as the Cubs travel less than an hour down 90 to the home of their bitter Little Brothers, they are looking to complete the month of June swoon-free despite having played most of it without their best-hitting outfielder and ace, All Star-caliber pitcher.
Actually, a lot of what we thought would happen has been happening. Yep, that's us folks, we're collectively one of blogging's best baseball minds*, and one of the least sarcastic.
(*Between the six of us, we're brilliant!)
At the start of the month, we took a look at the Cubs schedule and noted the following hurdles: 17 road games out of 27 games played. 22 of 27 games were to be played against teams who, at the start of the month, had better-than-.500 records. We predicted at that time that, if the Cubs could even go 14-13, that would a) be a success and b) probably keep them in first place.
As the month proceeded, the road got tougher. Alfonso Soriano broke his hand on June 11th. Carlos Zambrano had to suppress a small, communist revolution in his shoulder on June 18th. Carlos Marmol briefly thought his nickname was "Wild Thing." Eventually, I believe I told Jon Miller on his show that, as the month rolled forward, the Cardinals would not be likely to catch the Cubs, but the 2nd and 3rd place teams would probably be bunched together 3 or 4 games back. (Or at least, I said something to that effect. I might be exaggerating a bit to make meself sound more prophetic.)
Regardless, the Cubs now play 4 more games this month, and they have already won 14. At this stage, of the 23 games they've played so far including 13 on the road, 9 games were against teams currently with winning records. The Cubs have been a wrecking crew, and they are separating the men from the boys this month.
All of that leads up to this, a 3-game series in which a single win promises Chicago dominance to the Cubs for 2008, at least until October rolls around. Let's take a look at it in depth.
Friday, June 27th - Ryan Dempster vs. Jose Contreras
The last time the Cubs faced the White Sox, Contreras battled Marquis. It proved to be a very fun game for the Cubs, who spent an inning teeing off on Contreras as if it was batting practice. Jose would later say that he'd never had an inning like that in his entire career. Let's not make too much of it, but if the Cubs have gotten into his head, this could be an excellent follow-up. However, Contreras wouldn't be a Major League pitcher if he didn't have a backbone, and he will very likely be determined to shut the Cubs down tonight.
Clownsevelt, meanwhile, looks to cement his place in the All Star Game next month. He has quickly become a dominating factor in the Cubs rotation, and at this stage I probably wouldn't feel nervous to see him pitch a big game in October. But now that I've buttered him up, I'm sure he'll proceed to roll over tonight and surrender 6 runs, or something equally predictable.
Saturday, June 28th - Sean Gallagher vs. Javier Vazquez
Vazquez is another White Sox pitcher the Cubs got the better of last weekend. I can just imagine Ozzie Gullien cornering his trio of starters in the clubhouse before today's game, his pudgy face reddening as spittle flies out of his mouth, while he screams vulgarities at them in Spanish because he's demented and demanding. Actually, he's probably not that bad, but he's still a douche.
Sean Gallagher last pitched in Tampa, where he gave the Cubs 6 strong innings in a no-decision. In 4 starts this month, Irish has an ERA of 3.32, but he's also only gotten out of the 5th inning once. At this point, he's doing well for the Cubs, but I would like to see him step up a little and perhaps give the team a few more innings and a few more wins out of his young arm.
Sunday, June 29th - Sean Marshall vs. Mark Buehrle
Buehrle didn't get to face the Cubs last weekend, a fact that probably pleased the north siders. While his numbers have been far from dominant this season (5-6, 4.04 ERA), his June has been fantastic. Buehrle is 3-0 with a 1.89 ERA so far this month. Hey, you know what that means. The odds dictate that he's due to get rocked a little.
Sean Marshall, meanwhile, lacked in plus pitches in his previous start. He looked great during his first go-round against the Orioles, but the second time up they seemed to have realized that it was actually pretty easy to hit the guy. And then they hit him for 4 earned runs in 4.2 innings of work. Ugly. However, Marshall has shown in the past that he can git 'er done, and he has had a decent amount of success in past starts. Don't get me wrong, this has the potential to be a flat-out brutal game on the Cubs and I wouldn't be shocked to se Piniella rest some starters.
Predictions: Eh. I kind of hate making predictions about a short series. The Cubs dominated the White Sox last weekend at Wrigley, but they have continued to lose close games on the road in June. Because these losses are close, and because the Cubs are a complete team, I have to suspect that at some point they're going to go on a road rampage, so to speak, but will it be this weekend? Will it be after the break? I dunno. If it's ever going to happen, it'll probably be when everybody's healthy.
Therefore, I'm predicting two wins this series for Chicago - but I'm going to take the wuss-route and not tell you which "Chicago" I'm talking about. But, you never know, Chicago could sweep Chicago. The potential is there, depending on the momentum. And yes, I know I'm an ass.