"People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do, I stare out the window and wait for spring." - Rogers Hornsby

al yellon rants about the Cubs, the universe, and everything
:: welcome to 'and another thing!' - voted by readers as Best Cubs Blog 2004

:: Cubs' final 2004 record: 89-73, 3rd NL Central, -16. Last game: 10-8 win over Braves
:: Al's final 2004 record: 51-41, .554 (44-37 home, 7-4 road)
:: Cubs' 2004 record in all other games: 38-32, .543 (1-0 home, 37-32 road)
:: Next spring training game: Thursday, March 3, 2005, vs. A's at Phoenix, 2:05 pm CT
:: Next game: Monday, April 4, 2005, vs. Diamondbacks at Phoenix, 4:40 pm CT
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:: Saturday, July 05, 2003 ::

More Notes

1) They are selling All-Star caps at the souvenir stand in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. Once again, if you are going to the ASG or the Home Run Derby and want souvenirs, walk three blocks west of the Ballmall to Grandstand at 35th & Normal, where you can get the same stuff for much less $.

2) Happy ending to my scorecard-less day on the 26th of June. Mike, who works as a commercial artist, made me copies of a Brewer scorecard on a label sheet, which I then cut and pasted onto another blank scorecard from another series, and transferred the scoring from the sheet I used onto the new card. Thanks, my friend.


:: posted by Al at 7:21 PM [+] ::
...
Big

That's the name of that old Tom Hanks movie which I came across part of on cable the other day.

It's also a good description of how important today's win was. It started out like yesterday's game -- down 5-0 after two innings. Normally you don't see Dusty Baker make the first trip out to the mound, but he did in the first inning, probably to remind Shawn Estes how tired the bullpen was, and that no matter what, he was going to go six innings today.

And darn if Estes didn't turn it right around and throw four pretty good innings, and the bullpen, particularly Mike Remlinger, was lights-out, setting the stage for the dramatic bottom-of-the-9th 6-5 win over the Cardinals this afternoon, on an absolutely gorgeous day.

Moises Alou started out like he was going to tie the ML record (5) for HR in consecutive games, homering on the first pitch he saw, and he also doubled and walked. It's a sign of how hot he is, that in that 9th inning, the Cardinals opted to pitch to Sammy Sosa and intentionally walk Alou, to pitch to our favorite walk-off guy, Alex Gonzalez, who beat out the bases-loaded infield hit for the win.

This team showed a lot of heart today, and that may be a cliche but I haven't seen Cub teams of the last few years play like this when things have started to go bad. That's a good sign for tomorrow, when Mark Prior gets to play ace of the staff. If he can beat Woody Williams, then it's a series win (the first since the Baltimore series) and back to a first-place tie.

Jeff came back to the bleachers after being in the terrace yesterday for the annual SIU day at the ballpark (they always do this when the Cubs and Cardinals play, since most SIU grads are fans of one or the other). I also brought my son Mark, who hadn't seen the Cubs win at home since last year. And Phil decided to regale me with silly stuff like "the Stones are playing the new Soldier Field" and "the Cubs are getting Ron Coomer back to play 3B". Laughing his head off, he was, during such a tense game. Sheesh.

We should be grateful that about halfway through the game, the wind, which was blowing out strongly at gametime, shifted and came in off the lake, because that's the only reason that Albert Pujols' deep fly ball stayed in the park.

And let me take this opportunity to say -- Lenny Harris must have compromising photos of Dusty or something. Why on Earth this guy ever gets a start is beyond me. Dave told me that apparently he had some career success against Matt Morris, and yes, he did have a single off him. So then why was he allowed to bat in the sixth off lefty Lance Painter? Of course, two batters later, Jose Hernandez, the obvious pinch hitter for Harris, batted for Shawn Estes, and I told Howard I wanted to write the strikeout down before he even batted. He asked me, "Swinging or called?" I said, "Swinging, of course, Jose doesn't go for those wimpy called strikeouts." Sure enough, that's exactly what he did.

I also questioned at the time, the pinch-hitting of Alex Gonzalez for Hee Seop Choi (against lefty Jeff Fassero), though of course that worked out when Gonzalez won the game. If Hee Seop is ever going to learn to hit lefties, he's got to start sometime, and also he can't sit on the bench half the time and expect to get his hitting stroke back. Incidentally, Choi and Ramon Martinez combined for some nifty defensive plays today on tough grounders, particularly off the speedy Bo Hart in the sixth.

So, for today at least, the ship seems to be righting itself.


:: posted by Al at 4:20 PM [+] ::
...
:: Friday, July 04, 2003 ::
Notes

Once again, I thought of some stuff after today's game post, so here it is:

1) Sammy Sosa's goatee has to go. It looks evil. On some of us, goatees look good. But not on Sammy.

2) I figured once the White Sox got past the emotional highs of beating the Cubs and Twins at home, and went to play a boring team in front of indifferent fans, they'd lose. Exactly right. Tampa Bay turned the 9th-inning tables on the Sox with a walk-off HR tonight. Playing like this is the classic sign of a .500 ballclub.

3) So often, I criticize city government so I thought I'd take this opportunity to give them an attaboy. I hadn't driven on the reconstructed Wacker Drive since it was finished last November. But today, after heading to dinner at some friends' in Oak Park, I returned downtown via Lower Wacker.

They did it right. It's well-lit, well-marked, and finished on-time and under-budget. The city did something right this time.

For once.


:: posted by Al at 9:05 PM [+] ::
...
In Memoriam, Vince Lloyd, 1917-2003

Well, they're all gone now, all the men who Cub fans of my generation grew up with: Jack & Harry, Vince & Lou. Vince Lloyd passed away this morning at the age of 86. For younger fans who never had the privilege of hearing Vince, he succeeded to WGN radio's play-by-play job after the untimely death of Jack Quinlan in a car accident before the 1965 season. Vince & Lou were at the mike for 22 seasons together, till Vince was forced to retire at the age of 70, far too young as far as I'm concerned. He was a classy guy and a great broadcaster; probably his most memorable call was his absolute scream of Willie Smith's game-winning extra-inning home run on Opening Day 1969. We'll always remember Vince and Lou ringing their cowbell for Cub home runs and Vince yelling "Holy Mackerel", his trademark call.

Fond memories of times gone by, and all these men, who sat along with the rest of us through so many losing seasons, never saw the Cubs in a World Series, not even Jack Brickhouse, who was broadcasting for the New York Giants in 1945, before he came back to Chicago.

The Cubs held a moment of silence for Vince before today's game, and then the pitching staff went out and stunk up the joint again in another blowout, an 11-8 loss to the Cardinals which wasn't as close as the score.

Kerry Wood looked like he was a million miles away today; he had no command and got torched for a couple of home runs in the first inning, and though Dave Veres (just back from the DL) and Kyle Farnsworth managed to keep it close for a while, there was the leader of the Arson Squad, Antonio Alfonseca, raising his ERA to 5.43 with another putrid appearance; even Joe Borowski threw poorly today (though in fairness, the inning began with an error by the execrable Lenny Harris, who for some inexplicable reason was installed as a "defensive replacement" at 3B), and had they just been able to keep the Cardinals offense down, the third Moises Alou home run of the day, a 3-run job in the 9th, would have meant something instead of just being his biggest day as a Cub.

Sammy Sosa also homered on a high fastball that even Harris might have been able to hit out, his 511th, tying Mel Ott for 16th place on the all-time list. Next up are Ernie Banks and Eddie Mathews, tied at 512 (though Sammy hit 29 HR before he came to the Cubs, meaning he'll have to get to 542 before he breaks the club record). If Alou and Sosa can stay hot, maybe the offense will stay awake -- 8 runs was their biggest output since 9 runs on June 24 against Milwaukee.

Latest trade rumor involves getting Adrian Beltre from the Dodgers. Beltre's career started with a lot of promise, but he's had a couple bad years in a row and is getting a reputation as a malcontent. Maybe a deal here with Dusty Baker as manager, might help. Beltre is still young -- allegedly 24 -- so maybe he can still turn it around.

I had to work the evening shift today, so I didn't get to see the end of today's game in person, which was just as well. Jessica from the Cubs NG, along with her friend Charles, were there today and will spend most of the homestand in the bleachers (including what she says is her first-ever night game in the bleachers on Monday), and so will Mike, who is taking his annual homestand week off.

Let us hope it begins improving, tomorrow.




:: posted by Al at 5:59 PM [+] ::
...
:: Thursday, July 03, 2003 ::
Who The Heck Are We Kidding?

I told myself I was going to write something positive, to keep that positive attitude, so here goes:

At least it wasn't another one-run loss.

There, I said something positive.

There really isn't much more good to say about tonight's one-sided 12-2 loss to the Phillies. It started out OK, with Damian Miller's 2nd inning HR, but was all downhill from there. After the staff did so well last night, giving the Phillies only one hit, tonight nobody could get anyone out (well, except Mark Guthrie, who threw 2/3 of an inning last night, did the same tonight, with an economy of pitches: nine last night, eight tonight).

I could single someone out, and I'm going to. Juan Cruz has looked particularly clueless since his recall, and so many people I talk to say, don't ever trade him, he's got a great arm, he could be a future closer, and I was one of those last year, but now I say -- put up or shut up. I've seen Cruz throw lights-out, and I've seen him throw like he did tonight, where he could barely throw anything within three feet of the strike zone, and I say -- if Cruz is what it takes to get Mark Loretta, then do it. The Cubs have so many good young arms that anything to upgrade this anemic offense would be welcome.

It goes without saying that the Cubs must win at least two of three from the Cardinals this weekend if they want to keep any pretense of being contenders, so let me instead address a complaint that many of the Cubs had about the schedule this week.

It really is not fair to make the Cubs play a night game (even an hour earlier than last night), then fly two hours home and have to play a day game tomorrow. The Cardinals played a day game at home today, and their flight is much shorter than the Cubs'. The Phillies did have a fireworks show scheduled after today's game, but they're home tomorrow too, on the 4th itself, and they have another fireworks show on Saturday, so I don't think it would have been too much to ask them to play an afternoon game today, since the Cubs by ordinance are still not permitted to play Friday night games at home. That's one of the things I will totally support the Cubs on -- that they ought to be able to, over a several-year period, phase in perhaps 9-12 more night games, and be allowed to play on any night they choose, as long as they address the neighborhood concerns, pay for extra police, etc. In theory, the Cardinals have an advantage tomorrow, since at this writing, about 8:40 CDT, they are probably already at their hotel here in Chicago, while the Cubs are probably going to arrive at O'Hare about midnight, and not get home for another hour after that.

However, I've seen so many situations where teams, either the visitors or the Cubs, have arrived in town under those types of conditions, and come out with bats blazing the next afternoon.

Still, the Cubs deserve a level playing field, and though I love day baseball and think that it ought to be a big part of what the Cubs are about, they should never have to play a home day game the day after a road night game. There are two other such occurrences later this year -- Aug. 28 at St. Louis at night, then home the next day, and Sept. 25 at Cincinnati at night, then home the next day, both for Friday day games. Let's hope this gets addressed before next season.


:: posted by Al at 8:48 PM [+] ::
...
Movie Review: "Swimming Pool"

When you see this film, keep in mind that its star, Charlotte Rampling, is 58 years old. That will be something that will astonish you when you see one particular scene in this film.

But I get ahead of myself. The basic plot is: Rampling plays Sarah Morton, a British novelist who as we meet her, seems to be a very distasteful person. She's rude to just about everyone, including her editor, who eventually suggests that she go to his villa in France to work on her new novel.

She's alone there for a while and seemingly happy, when along comes her editor's nubile young daughter, Julie, played by young French actress Ludivine Sagnier, who, I have to admit, is real eye candy. Sagnier spends most of the film either in skimpy swimsuits or half-naked, yet this at no time seems prurient; it seems so natural, as part of the plot. Julie is also a slut, and I don't use that term lightly. This is something that alternately horrifies and intrigues Sarah.

Then this film noir takes a darker turn, and revealing plot points will give away the entire story. The only hint I'll give you is that in a way, the plot device is similar to the one used in last year's Nicolas Cage film "Adaptation". There are characters who seem so peripheral to the plot who turn out to be very important, and others who in the same fashion, are red herrings. There aren't very many principals in this film; Rampling and Sagnier take up probably 75% of the screen time just themselves. It's also a very spare film in its use of music; you hear just about every sound made, from Sarah typing the story on her laptop, to the opening and preparation of food, which you never would have thought made so much noise.

Of course, there's a twist at the end, which I won't ruin. This isn't a great film, but it's nice summer escapist entertainment.

After the film everyone was handed a survey and a very tiny pencil with which to fill it out. Among other questions we were asked was what are our 3 favorite cable TV channels; what this has to do with "Swimming Pool", I have no idea.

AYRating: ***


:: posted by Al at 9:50 AM [+] ::
...
:: Wednesday, July 02, 2003 ::
Wow!

Since the beginning of June I haven't missed much Cubs baseball, either in person or on TV -- and it had been in person for all but six games (the four in Cincinnati and the first two in Philadelphia), and I only missed the last seven innings of the last game in Baltimore (due to the rain delays and the adventure we had getting back to Washington).

So I decided to stop obsessing. A little. I took in a movie (review to be posted tomorrow -- come back to find out which movie!), and a quick dinner, and missed the first four innings of the telecast tonight.

Smart move, I think. I really didn't miss too much, except for some fine pitching by Matt Clement (despite six walks), and that continued through seven, and between Clement, Mark Guthrie, Kyle Farnsworth and Joe Borowski, the Cubs one-hit the Phillies and won 1-0, the Cubs' first one-hitter since Jon Lieber and Kerry Wood did it back-to-back in May 2001. The Cubs also got a key caught-stealing of Bobby Abreu by Paul Bako to snuff out one late-inning threat.

This continues the streak of great pitching by the Cubs' starting pitchers that goes all the way back to June 21, the second Cubs/White Sox game at Wrigley Field. That's why I keep saying, if they can generate any offense, a very long winning streak could follow. Today, all they wound up needing was Sammy Sosa's bomb of a home run to center field in the 9th inning. I keep hoping that any HR by Sammy will turn him onto one of his patented tears where he hits 10 in a week or so, and maybe coming home in a couple of days will start one of those streaks. In 2001, Sammy had 35 HR and 85 RBI after the All-Star break, and doing that again this year would silence all his critics, and give him a year statistically similar to last year (actually, it'd be better, since he's missed 24 games this year).

It seems that the loud booing and yells of "Corky" have been made fashionable by the Sox fans; I heard lots of that in Philly the last couple of nights. As I've said before, that's really too bad. It's yesterday's news -- he's paid his penalty, and all he can do is prove that he really is the player that everyone has always known him to be, for the rest of his career.

I would have started Hee Seop Choi tonight, given the righthander Duckworth starting, but you can't argue with Eric Karros' two hits. Steve Stone said on the telecast that Choi "doesn't have his stroke back yet". Well, how can you do that sitting on the bench? Eventually, I'd like to see them back in a strict platoon.

With the Cardinals' 4-1 loss to the Giants, the Cubs and Cardinals are now tied, and if Milwaukee can hold onto its lead over the Astros, all three teams will be tied for first place (if not, the Astros will be up by a game). Many people have already forgotten that the 1998 wild-card race was just like this; for the last 45 days of the season, no more than one game separated the wild-card leader and trailer (at the time, the Cubs and Mets; the Giants only sneaked in because they won five in a row while the Mets were losing five in a row the last week of the 1998 season). This year could turn out just the same way, and don't count the Reds out either (though unless they get some pitching, they're likely to fade out of the race).

That's the reason I encourage Jim Hendry to think outside the box. Today, the Kansas City Royals traded for Curtis Leskanic of the Brewers. There's a team that you wouldn't have thought of, right in play for help as they think that maybe their first-half success isn't an illusion, and that with bullpen help they can stay right there with the Twins and White Sox. It's been said that you can't trade for someone that's "not available", but how can you know unless you ask? That's how Billy Beane has made some steals of trades in the last three years that have put the A's, a small-payroll team, into the playoffs and has them seriously contending again. Maybe there's someone out there, someone even the rumormongers haven't thought of, who Hendry could get, if only he tried.


:: posted by Al at 9:23 PM [+] ::
...
AlfonSUCKa

Yeah, I know that's a pretty strong statement, but I knew the minute Dusty put him into the game that somehow, he'd lose it; I didn't figure it to be the way it actually happened (I thought he'd walk in the winning run, which he nearly did), but you could see it coming, in the look on his face if nothing else. The signing of Alfonseca is probably the worst move in Jim Hendry's career so far as Cub GM, not only coming off his poor performance of a year ago, but the price paid ($4 million) could have been used to upgrade the offense. Frankly, at this point I think I'd just eat the rest of the contract and release him, especially since Dave Veres is about ready to come off the DL. Maybe we could get someone to take him and get a couple of prospects back if we were willing to eat the rest of the contract.

Upgrading the offense is the key phrase in that last paragraph. The Cubs' last five losses have all been by one run, and all in their opponent's last at-bat, and yesterday's seemingly inevitable 4-3 loss to the Phillies wouldn't have happened if the Cubs had people who can hit.

I mean, seriously: when is Dusty Baker, a good baseball man and someone who's been around the game a very long time, going to figure out that Tom Goodwin and Lenny Harris not only are not leadoff men (Goodwin kept up Harris' fine leadoff tradition yesterday by going 0-for-4 and striking out twice and making a first-pitch out in the first inning), but neither of them is a major-league hitter any more. You'd think that Dusty would realize the value of walks, having managed Barry Bonds for a decade, but remember this is also the guy who gave Shawon Dunston 147 at-bats last year with a grand total of three walks.

Frankly, the pitching staff is, for the most part, doing its job. Every starter has thrown well since Shawn Estes' blowup vs. the White Sox on June 20, and yesterday wasted another fine Mark Prior outing. This time the defense let the Cubs down, with two of the runs Prior allowed being unearned.

Now that Mike Lowell is not going to be traded, the Cubs need to turn their attention to someone else. Sammy Sosa is in what may be a season-long funk; Moises Alou still isn't hitting home runs, and neither is Corey Patterson lately. The Karros/Choi platoon has been productive and if Dusty sticks with a strict left/right platoon, this will work. But the club has to stop leaving so many runners on base, and has to start getting to the late innings with more than a one-run lead, or tied. The Cubs have had the lead in every one of the last nine games, dating back to the June 22 win over the White Sox, and have won only four of them. Every team does go through funks like this; this same team went 30-24 over a two-month period and I see no reason they can't do that, or better, the next two months.

Rumors this morning include the possible acquisition of Mark Loretta from the Padres; Loretta is a decent average and OBA hitter (lifetime .293/.359 in those categories), and a good fielder, but he has no power. If the idea is to get him and lead him off, the Cubs could do worse, and it probably wouldn't take too much to get him, and maybe this would get Lenny Harris off the roster.

And even with all of that -- the Cardinals lost again to the Giants last night, so the Cubs, now 42-40, still stand only one game out of first place, which is now occupied by both the Cards and Astros.

The NL Central is still there for the taking. The White Sox made some dramatic trade moves last night because they see their own Central division also right there. C'mon, Jim Hendry. Make the moves. This year is winnable. Let's win it.


:: posted by Al at 8:25 AM [+] ::
...
:: Tuesday, July 01, 2003 ::
Let's Talk About...

... Lenny Harris, shall we?

I'm sure Lenny Harris is a very nice fellow. I'm sure he's a good teammate; that he's nice to his family and that he treats his pets well, if he has any.

And once upon a time, he was a decent major league baseball player. Not a great one, but good enough to play regularly for a couple of years and to hang around long enough to set the major league record for most pinch-hits in a career, though even that record is somewhat tainted because though he has a large number of pinch-hits, his lifetime pinch-hit batting average is pretty poor.

And he can't play any more, Dusty Baker. You listening? And if you, Dusty, think that a team in pennant contention should ever put a man like this in the leadoff spot in the lineup (and playing 3B to boot, where he's pretty much a statue), you are truly delusional.

Lenny lived up to his current reputation by going 0-for-4 and striking out twice (and looking really bad doing it) in the Cubs' frustrating 4-3 loss to the Phillies, the fourth one-run loss in a row (with the win on Sunday in between).

I can't really totally blame Lenny for this loss, but Steve Stone pointed out during the FSN telecast that the Cubs are playing .750 baseball when they score five runs or more. In fact, five runs would have won three of the four one-run losses in the last week and then we wouldn't be discussing this at all. But putting someone like Lenny Harris in the leadoff spot is not going to help you score runs. Why would you, as a major league manager, think that leading off someone with a .243 on-base percentage is going to help you? In what way did Lenny Harris ever resemble a leadoff hitter? Looking at his career as a whole, you can see two seasons -- 1990 and 1991, when he played more or less full-time for the Dodgers, where he might have been suited to the leadoff spot; he had OBA's of .348 and .349 and stole a handful of bases.

But that was twelve years ago; Lenny's 38 now and slow, and so is his bat. Virtually anyone in yesterday's starting lineup -- yes, even Damian Miller, whose OBA is 70 points higher than Lenny's -- would have been a better choice. For heaven's sake, why not lead off Hee Seop Choi, who at least will draw a walk from time to time, and who actually runs pretty well, and not just "runs well for a big man", but runs well, period.

There was some good that came out of this game -- Shawn Estes pitched well and made one mistake, and lots of pitchers get lit up by Jim Thome; unfortunately, Thome's homer was hit at the absolute worst time. Estes also homered, the third of his career, and this is the first time since 1970 (Fergie Jenkins, Milt Pappas, Joe Decker, Roberto Rodriguez) that four different Cub pitchers have homered in a single season. The record for such things is five, though I don't hold out much hope for Matt Clement or any of the relief corps homering this year.

What really pissed me off more yesterday was a short trip I took to the post office. This post office is in a strip mall and has a large parking lot, unusual for the city. It also has some mailboxes where you can just drive up and drop letters in the slot, which is all I needed to do. Easy, unless some moron has decided that it's OK to park his car and sit in it, right in front of the boxes, despite the large NO PARKING signs right there. One polite honk didn't get him to move, so I had to sit on the horn, and then he gave me the dirty look, like I had done something wrong. No, buddy, YOU are parked in a no-parking zone, this isn't your personal parking lot.

OK, now back to our regularly scheduled Cub report.

Once again, Mark Prior tries to stem the damage tonight. Luckily, the Cardinals lost again, so despite this skid, the Cubs remain only a game out, and a chance to beat St. Louis head to head this weekend.


:: posted by Al at 8:24 AM [+] ::
...
:: Monday, June 30, 2003 ::
I'd Hate To See What The OLD Management Was Like!



Fullerton & Southport, Chicago, Saturday, June 28, 2003


:: posted by Al at 4:08 PM [+] ::
...
Halfway Home

Of course, the actual mathematical halfway mark of the Cubs' season will occur after tonight's game with the Phillies in Philadelphia, the 81st game, but I thought I'd take this morning to give a bit of halfway-mark analysis, what with the end of interleague play (the Cubs went 9-9 and all six series were 2-1 splits: wins over Baltimore, Tampa Bay and the Yankees, and losses to Toronto and twice to the White Sox), it seems like more of a natural break. I'll update this also during the All-Star break.

What if I had told you back in March that:

1) Sammy Sosa would miss 24 games due to injury and suspension;
2) Matt Clement's ERA would be two runs higher than last year;
3) Mark Bellhorn would have 2 HR at the end of June and would be traded;
4) the expensive Antonio Alfonseca would have zero saves;
5) Bobby Hill would spend all but four at-bats of 2003 at Iowa;
6) Cub catchers would be hitting a collective .218;
7) We'd be screaming at our 3B coach for continually getting runners thrown out at the plate; and
8) The Cubs' leading RBI man would be Corey Patterson.

You'd probably have said that the club would be in last place about 15 games out, right?

Well, all of those things have happened, and yet:

1) The longest losing streak has been only four games;
2) The Cubs are 14-9 in one-run games, one of the better records in the league;
3) The pitching staff is fifth in the league in fewest runs allowed (and only five runs more than the 3rd place team);
4) Mark Prior & Kerry Wood are 1-2 in the league in strikeouts and Wood, Prior and Carlos Zambrano rank 4th, 5th and 10th in the league in ERA;
5) Patterson ranks 13th in the league in RBI and has established himself as a star at 23;
6) Both Wood and Prior may make the All-Star team and either one might have a shot at starting;
7) Joe Borowski has stepped up into the closer role and aside from one spectacular blown save against the Brewers, has done an exemplary job;
8) The Todd Hundley trade produced two useful players in Mark Grudzielanek and Eric Karros.

Statistically -- yes, this Cub team is not impressive, especially offensively, where they rank tied for 10th in the league in runs scored. But somehow they win; and I give almost all the credit for that to Dusty Baker, who has this team -- well, I could say playing over its head, but I don't think so. I'll say playing up to their full potential, which is all any manager or for that matter, any fan, can ask. Yes, this team has weaknesses, some of which are glaring -- but then, so do all three of their division rivals. The NL Central is there for the taking, and any of the four teams which can put together a decent winning streak, will immediately become the favorite.

The Cubs have the best pitching, both starting and relieving, in the division, and if Wood, Prior and Zambrano continue to show what they've been the first half, the Cubs ought to be that team. Yes, I know the Astros have a better closer and setup man in Wagner and Dotel, but the Cubs' bullpen depth is greater, despite the implosions of the last few days. I will say that Antonio Alfonseca should not be put near any sort of game situation for a while; something seems to have gotten into his head, and maybe pitching in garbage time right now would help.

Virtually every Cub fan -- myself included -- hopes, maybe expects, to see Mike Lowell in a Cub uniform by the end of July. It won't be in the next two weeks -- Lowell is likely to be the Marlins' only All-Star, so I doubt they'd be willing to deal him before then. Third base has been a black hole this year -- WHY is Lenny Harris EVER given a start there? -- and the acquisition of Jose Hernandez is not the answer, despite yesterday's home run. If Lowell is acquired, I'd expect Harris to be released.

Caveat -- all of us also thought Fred McGriff was the "last piece of the puzzle" in 2001, but the team started playing worse when he arrived; also, the three-week dog & pony show that he put the Cubs through before accepting the deal, must have worn on the psyches in the clubhouse. Mike Lowell isn't that kind of man, I don't think -- if the Cubs and Marlins do deal, I'd expect Lowell to report right away and contribute. We will get to see him play against the Cubs, likely twice, since the two series vs. Florida will be complete by July 20. Maybe when the Cubs go to Miami right after the All-Star break, that's when the deal could be consummated.

Finally, the toughest part of this is that I've started to believe in this team, and that makes every win sweeter, but every loss that much more heart-wrenching. Last year, when the team was out of it by mid-May and playing poorly, it was easy to let go. This club has an excellent chance to win the NL Central without major changes (3B excepted), and the way the pitching staff is structured, an even better chance to win playoff series. The tough part is getting there.

The second half of the climb begins tonight in Philadelphia. Let's win it.



:: posted by Al at 8:32 AM [+] ::
...
:: Sunday, June 29, 2003 ::
They're Not All Bad

Believe it or not, I spent today sitting next to two Sox fans who I respect -- we spent the day variously discussing how if we had one Chicago team with all the best players, maybe we could get the city to the World Series; we talked about game strategy, and how we both did a lot of scoreboard watching (them rooting for the Cardinals and Brewers to win; me rooting for the Rangers and Royals), and how both Central divisions are really there for the taking if only our respective teams would step up and do it. They actually mentioned remembering sitting next to me at last year's Cubs/Sox series on the South Side; I hadn't made the connection until they said so, but then I had a recollection of that too. Nice guys -- I never did get their names; if you guys are somehow reading this, I salute you.

If only all Sox fans were like this, it'd be a really good rivalry. Cardinal fans, with whom Cub fans also have a heated rivalry, don't seem to have the visceral hatred that most Sox fans walk around with. Really, it's so unnecessary; it almost got to the point where my buddy Mike, who never shows this type of emotion, even told me he felt some satisfaction out of today's nail-biting 5-2 Cubs win over the White Sox, which ended the season-longest losing streak at four (and isn't it nice that we're halfway through the season and the longest losing streak is only 4 games?).

Kerry Wood did indeed step up with his "A" game today; he didn't have his strikeout pitch working (only seven), but he kept Sox hitters off balance most of the day with his breaking ball. Mike & I both thought that the Cubs matched up well with Esteban Loaiza, who has been almost unhittable this year, and we turned out to be right; the Cubs had their first two-homer game since last Tuesday, one of them being an absolute bomb by Moises Alou (who incidentally also had a two-homer game at the Ballmall last year). The bullpen stepped up and did their job today; and frankly, Antonio Alfonseca should not be allowed near any sort of critical situation, and he wasn't today. Wood threw 127 pitches and didn't labor, but I think Dusty really wanted to get all the way to the 9th without having to tap the overtaxed relief corps.

It really does feel like a weight lifted off; Wood was quoted as saying, in the ESPN.com article linked above:

"Now we can worry about playing baseball. It's a fun series for the fans and everybody enjoys the Cubs-White Sox rivalry. But for us, it's another game and there is a lot of attention that we feel is sometimes a little overboard. I'm just glad it's over with."

And he's right. Five of the six games were close, taut games that would have been exciting against any opponent, but the full house that was loud and pulsating made them feel almost like playoff games. Playoffs, of course, are still far away both in the calendar and both of these teams have a long way to go before they can stake any such claims. However, both Central divisions are, as I said, there for the taking. The Sox and Cubs both have considerable weaknesses; but so do their main rivals, and the team that can put together any sort of decent streak ought to be able to take charge at least for the near term. (There. How did that rate on the cliche meter?)

I still wish Dusty Baker had taken my advice (and I doubt, of course, that he ever saw it -- I don't think he's very computer savvy) -- Sammy Sosa had a 1-for-4 day and still seemed kind of off-balance. I hope getting away from these media-frenzy type series, to a "regular" series with just an old NL rival, the Phillies, will get him back on track. It will be Sammy's first foray onto artificial turf this year, since he missed the Toronto series.

Sign seen: OK, I have to describe this one, since it had drawings as part of its message. It said:

Yesterday

White Sox (then it had a hand holding up five fingers and one with two fingers)

Alfonseca (then it had a hand with six fingers)

I thought that was pretty clever, actually.


:: posted by Al at 7:34 PM [+] ::
...

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