"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, September 25, 2004 ::

Bring Me The Head Of LaTroy Hawkins

Or, more accurately, bring me the head of Dusty Baker, who swore he'd never use Hawkins three days in a row -- and the result when he did was an unbelievable, two-out, two-strike, game-tying homer by Mets rookie Victor Diaz, only his second major league homer, and worse, he grew up in the Chicago area idolizing Sammy Sosa -- who had one of the worst days of his career, striking out four times, and if he'd managed a fifth, the Cubs would have at least had a shot at winning in the tenth, but instead he hit into an inning-ending double play.

You know, if I were Dusty, I might play a hunch and sit Sammy tomorrow -- he's 7-for-33 lifetime against Al Leiter. The only problem is, the replacements are lefthanded hitting Ben Grieve, or rookie Jason Dubois, or Jose Macias, who's 0-for-2 against Leiter.

This has not been a good day. The Cubs lost an emotionally draining game, 4-3 in 11 innings, when another rookie, Craig Brazell, hit his first major league homer off Kent Mercker.

Put it another way: the Mets scored as many runs on Diaz's swing (three) as they had scored in the four previous games against the Cubs this year.

Meanwhile, the Giants were winning in just as emotional a way, 9-5 over the Dodgers when Pedro Feliz broke up a 5-5 tie in the 8th with a grand slam.

My son Mark says the Dodgers lost because Shawn Green didn't play today. Um, nope. They lost because Yhency Brazoban, who came into the game with a 0.93 ERA and having allowed only one homer all year, couldn't throw strikes, and when he did, Feliz punished him. The Dodgers didn't let Barry Bonds beat them -- they walked him every time he came up, including once with first base occupied. Sometimes this works, and sometimes the other Giants do actually hit, and today they did.

So many times, we have seen the Cubs -- or other teams -- have emotional losses or wins like this and it doesn't carry over to the next day. That's what the Cubs have to do tomorrow. The Fox broadcasters -- the smarmy Josh Lewin and the overbearing Tim McCarver -- kept saying that Paul Bako, who got a day-game-after-night-game start today, had tickets to see "Mamma Mia" on Broadway tonight, and maybe he ought to invite some of his teammates, get their minds as far from Shea Stadium as possible, and then ride Kerry Wood to victory tomorrow. Wood, for his part, is 4-1 against the Mets since 2001, with a 1.71 ERA in 49 innings. Al Leiter, for his part, is 1-3 vs. the Cubs in the same period, with a 2.63 ERA in 33 innings.

So, we'll probably expect a pitcher's duel -- and the way things are going in this wacky season, we'll get a blowout. It's time for the Cubs' bats to get going, anyway.

Let us not be Chicken Littles. Neither the sky NOR the wild card is falling. The Cubs maintain a half-game lead, and a full game in the loss column, now with eight games left (the Giants have seven -- they have a Monday off day while the Cubs play). Historical perspective: in last year's division race, with seven games left, the Cubs were half a game behind and still won.

There's a lot of good that came out of today's game that is hidden by the loss -- Mark Prior threw a heck of a game and deserved better than a no-decision, and this is his second straight start just like this one. The starting staff is definitely hitting on all cylinders, and apart from the two homers, the bullpen has actually done a pretty good job in the last week.

One last thing about the Fox telecast -- I haven't seen too many of these, so this was the first time I had seen "Scooter", the silly animated baseball that's supposedly there to teach kids about the game, and to bring more young fans to baseball.

There's a certain nine-year-old in my house who said Scooter is "stupid". Take a lesson from that, Fox honchos -- who, as Josh Lewin said during today's telecast, are still dreaming of that Cubs-Red Sox World Series we were all denied last year.

Speaking of MLB and television: why does MLB insist on Extra Innings blacking out the West Coast Fox games after their time period has ended here? There were zero games being televised into this market from 3-6 pm CT.

Why would MLB object to me watching another three hours of Fox's commercials? If the SF/LA game had been available, I'd definitely have watched it.

Keep the faith. There are eight games left. The Cubs can still win it themselves by winning eight in a row -- not an impossibility, and the Brewers helped the Cubs out by shutting out Houston 8-0, and I have to believe the Dodgers will beat the Giants a couple more times in their four remaining meetings, which would reduce the number of games the Cubs must win.

On to tomorrow. Keep hope and positive energy in all your thoughts tonight.

:: posted by Al at 6:52 PM [+] ::
Schedule Change

Next Saturday's home game against the Braves, originally listed as "TBD" on most schedules, has been set for 12:20 pm (CT), and will be on FOX-TV, regionally.

As they say, "check local listings".

:: posted by Al at 4:45 AM [+] ::
:: Friday, September 24, 2004 ::
When You Come By, Bring My Stomach

OK, I'm dating myself.

If you're old enough to remember Jack Brickhouse (and that's almost 25 years ago, at least, not), he used to say that all the time when a tense situation was defused in favor of the Cubs.

That's what happened tonight in New York, as the Cubs beat the Mets 2-1 in 10 innings, their eighth straight win over the Mets dating back to April of last year.

Stat corner:

* The Cubs have now won 11 of their last 13 games.

* The Cubs are 15-6 in September, an even better percentage than last September's 19-8.

* The Cubs move up to 10-6 in extra-inning games.

* LaTroy Hawkins has saved two one-run games on the road this week.

Remember when I said "baseball is a marathon, not a sprint"?

Well, NOW it's a sprint. With now nine games remaining in the season, every game assumes 7th-game-of-the-World-Series importance. The Dodgers and Giants are just starting on the West Coast as I write this, and the Cubs increased their wild-card lead over the Giants to a full game, pending the outcome of the game in San Francisco, and suddenly all of us are huge Dodger fans.

It has often been said that "the good teams, the championship-quality teams, win these sorts of games."

Well, maybe, just maybe, the Cubs are finally becoming that sort of team.

I can't say enough about the Cub pitching staff tonight. Glendon Rusch -- without whom, incidentally, we wouldn't even be having this discussion -- threw six outstanding innings, allowing only one run, and striking out seven, and the rest of the bullpen, even Dr. Tightpants, shut the Mets down the rest of the way.

Kris Benson, probably the Mets' best pitcher and someone who's given the Cubs fits all his career, did so again tonight, but made one mistake -- and Aramis Ramirez, who is turning into an absolutely great pennant-drive hitter, smacked it over the CF wall for a game-tying homer in the 7th. Other than Aramis, who had two other hits, the rest of the club got shut down tonight, with only a Moises Alou double and three singles, but they were enough, as Mark Grudzielanek singled in the 10th. After a couple of really futile-looking bunt attempts by Corey Patterson, he wound up hitting a little grounder to the mound which advanced Grudz anyway, and then Derrek Lee, who had looked sick against Benson, singled him in.

Lee then finished off his rotten day by stealing second -- and I say rotten because he could have advanced to third on the bad Mike Piazza throw, and I guess he must have been mad at himself for not doing so, because he promptly got thrown out trying to steal third.

The Shea Stadium crowd of 28,196 sounded like it had a significant minority (maybe as many as 1/3) Cub fans. We are everywhere.

Dave Otto filled in for Steve Stone, observing Yom Kippur (as Shawn Green and I will be doing tomorrow), and actually did a credible job. I didn't like him much during the time he was doing the job full-time, but either he's improved or I've softened, because I found him eminently listenable the last few days, whether he's been on TV, or on radio filling in for Ron Santo.

But the real credit tonight has to go to my daughter Rachel, who just acquired one of the newly fashionable (for girls and women) pink Cub caps.

She wasn't wearing it and came into the room during the ninth inning, and I insisted she put it on.

Draw your own conclusions. Let's go Dodgers.

:: posted by Al at 9:20 PM [+] ::
It's Just This Simple

The Cubs went into first place in the wild card race late last night when the Astros came from behind in the 9th and beat the Giants.

Their mathematical magic number is 10, which in most cases would mean that if they won all 10 remaining games, they'd be in, no matter what anyone else does.

Because the Dodgers and Giants play each other, and both are in play for the wild card and the NL West title, the Cubs' real magic number is eight.

If the Cubs win eight of ten, they'll be 94-68. Yes, it is possible for the Giants to finish better than that -- but if they do, they'll be West champions, and the Dodgers will be eliminated. All the other contenders have already lost more than 69 games.

Trust me on this one, and let's just focus on beating the Mets tonight.

UPDATE TO THIS: I got e-mail from John Hill reminding me that 8-2 would make the Cubs 94-68, not 93-69, and of course he's right, and I've fixed this.

Some of the permutations make my eyes glaze over, but here's one that John sent me, specific to the Giants/Dodgers series:

Dodgers 6-0, maximum of 90 Cub wins (4-6) required unless Astros go 6-3 to tie or better
Dodgers 5-1, maximum of 91 Cub wins (5-5) required unless Astros go 7-2 to tie or better
Giants 6-0, maximum of 92 Cub wins (6-4) required unless Astros go 8-1 to tie or better
Dodgers 4-2, maximum of 92 Cub wins (6-4) required unless Astros go 8-1 to tie or better
Giants 5-1, maximum of 93 Cub wins (7-3) required unless Astros go 9-0 to tie
Split 3-3, maximum of 93 Cub wins (7-3) required unless Astros go 9-0 to tie
Giants 4-2, maximum of 94 Cub wins (8-2) required

Root for it to be very one sided, preferably Dodger one-sided.

Following that? OK, if you are, read this from Ben Lauderdale, who says the key series are not the Dodgers/Giants series, but the OTHER series those two clubs play:

It is a bit misleading to say the Cubs real magic number is 8. The problem is that a magic number is really only defined with respect to a single team, so the Cubs do not really have a magic number, but the Cubs have a magic/elimination number over each of the teams that they might be in competition with:

Cubs-Dodgers: E# = 12 (i.e. if Cubs wins + Dodgers losses = 12, the Cubs will finish ahead of the Dodgers)
Cubs-Giants: E# = 10
Cubs-Astros: E# = 8
Cubs-Padres: E# = 6
Cubs-Florida: E# = 4
Cubs-Philles: E# = 4

In a normal race, the Cubs would simply need to get all of these numbers to zero, thus the largest one becomes the "magic number" and everything makes sense. But in this case, the Cubs only need to get all but either the Dodgers or the Giants to zero, since they only need to beat the worse team of those two to get the WC.

The complicated part is that since there are six games left between LA and SF, there is a guarantee that those teams can't both win out, which is not normally the case when you calculate these things. The worst case for the Cubs is for the Dodgers and Giants to finish with the same record and win all their games not played against each other, because then the Cubs have to beat both of those teams rather than just one. This corresponds to the Giants winning 4 of 6 of the head to head games and leaves both the Cubs-Giants and Cubs-Dodgers E#s at 8, thus the Cubs can guarantee a playoff berth with 8 wins and a one game playoff with 7. But 8 is not really the "magic number", because you will note that if the Cubs win six games, the Dodgers lose 4 and the Giants 2, the Cubs don't make the playoffs, but 6+2=8. In this case, the Cubs would finish one game behind a tied SF and LA, which would certainly suck a lot.

But that is a very unlikely and very dire scenario, because it assumes that the Giants and Dodgers split their series exactly 4-2 in favor of the Giants, the Dodgers sweep four games from Colorado and the Giants sweep three from San Diego. And even in this worst case, the Cubs still can clinch by going 8-2 and force a playoff by going 7-3. More realistic would be that the Dodgers take 3 of 4 from Colorado and the Giants 2 of 3 from San Diego, in which case the Cubs just need to go 7-3 to clinch and 6-4 to force a playoff. If the Giants and Dodgers instead split their series 3-3 and each lose one in their other series, the Cubs would only need to go 6-4 to clinch and 5-5 to force a playoff with the Giants. This seems to me like the most likely scenario, which is why things are looking pretty good right now. Even if the Cubs "only" went 6-4, the Astros would have to go 8-1 just to force a playoff, so we really do not need to worry about them too much at this

So, what is the upshot of all these scenarios? The really critical series are not the Dodgers-Giants series, but the Dodgers-Rockies and Giants-Padres series. If the Giants and Dodgers have bad series, the Cubs really only need play .500 ball to get into the big dance. Otherwise they will have to do a little better, but not all that much.

This is a lot to digest, so let's just figure it this way:

If the Cubs win all their games, they're in.

Let's start it tonight.

Oh, and today is the 20th anniversary of the Cubs' Eastern Division clinching game at Pittsburgh. That is the only year since 1945 that they have won more than 93 games (they went 96-65).

:: posted by Al at 8:55 AM [+] ::
:: Thursday, September 23, 2004 ::
Happy To Be Wrong

When this road trip began I thought the Cubs would be OK if they won three of four in Cincinnati, and then split the doubleheader in Florida.

They did that, and kept pace.

I also felt that taking two of three in Pittsburgh would do them well, and I'm so glad I turned out to be wrong, because the sweep completed today, with a well-played 6-3 win over the Pirates on a sunny summer-like day, puts pressure on all of the wild-card contenders, playing tonight, now already knowing the result of the Cubs game.

This was the Greg Maddux show -- he won his fifteenth, matching Carlos Zambrano for the club lead, and each will have two more starts, making this the seventeenth consecutive season in which he's won fifteen games.

With the six innings thrown today he also went over 200 innings -- to 201.2, to be exact -- and this is important because his new contract has a vesting provision if he throws more than 400 combined innings in 2004 and 2005. So he now needs fewer than 200 innings next year in order for his 2006 option to vest.

The way Maddux has pitched this year, I don't think any of us will be unhappy with that. He's kept himself in great shape, won key games, and today, hit an important two-run single in the decisive second inning when the Cubs scored four runs. Paul Bako also drove in a run, and lately the Cubs have been winning without contributions from Corey Patterson, among others -- Patterson got the day off today (though he came in to play CF in the 8th and struck out in the 9th -- again), in fact, and I think that was a good thing, because you have to give your bench players some at-bats. Tom Goodwin was 0-for-3, but did draw a walk, and maybe the day off will clear Corey's head. He's always hit well in New York, anyway -- he had a big day there on Opening Day a year ago, and the Cubs will be playing a team they haven't lost to since April 2, 2003. They won the last game played in New York the next day, swept the Mets in September 2003 at Wrigley Field, and also swept them this past April in Chicago, giving them only two runs in the three games played.

Maddux' stat line for this game is just average -- 3 ER in six innings, but he made only two mistakes, one of which was smacked over Goodwin's head for a Rob Mackowiak double, and the other a line-drive homer by the next hitter, Craig Wilson, and that was pretty much all the damage the Pirates could do. The bullpen shut Pittsburgh down, and that includes yet another scoreless inning from -- dare we say -- a newly healthy and focused Dr. Tightpants.

This being the longest road trip of the year, it's also the longest stretch in which I've seen games solely on TV, and I have to say this:

Those commercials for Ford -- "A Focus and a Dell" -- have to be about the most annoying thing I have ever seen. That darned song is going through my head and I cannot get it out!

Let me just go on the record as saying I am NOT buying the darn car!

OK, back to baseball, because NOW, it gets interesting.

At this moment, the Cubs are 86-66. That puts them twenty games over .500 for the first time since 1989 (and yes, this time I'm sure of that).

The Giants are also 86-66, so the two teams are, for the moment, tied for the wild-card lead.

The Giants stand half a game behind the Dodgers, who are 86-65 and play San Diego tonight.

So do we root for Houston to beat the Giants today, to put the Cubs in the wild-card lead? Or do we root for the Giants to win and overtake the Dodgers, who seem to be in free-fall, and who have to play San Francisco six times in the next two weeks?

Whatever happens between the Giants and Dodgers, ONE of those teams must lose at least three of the six games, and that would put the Cubs in good shape no matter who is the West leader.

Chip and Steve thought that it might be better for Houston to win tonight. Many others feel that the Giants could win the West, and a win for SF would put the Astros pretty much out of the race -- a Houston loss would make them 83-70, 3.5 games behind the Cubs.

Glendon Rusch, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood will start against the Mets this weekend -- and yes, Wood will start, after having been examined today and pronounced fit to go by Cubs orthopedic specialist Dr. Stephen Gryzlo and trainer Dave Groeschner.

Fasten your seat belts, everyone, and keep that faith and hope. Hope is smiling and enjoying the flight to New York tonight.

:: posted by Al at 3:50 PM [+] ::
:: Wednesday, September 22, 2004 ::
Got Any Fingernails Left?

Yeah, I didn't think you did, either.

The Cubs rode some terrific pitching by Carlos Zambrano, Kent Mercker and Mike Remlinger, and some great pennant-race defense by Aramis Ramirez and Sammy Sosa -- who made a catch that quite literally saved the game, a flat-out dive with the bases loaded in the 8th inning, and if you ever think that Sammy doesn't care, or doesn't try, he may not be hitting right now, but like my friend Dave says, he NEVER loafs -- and beat the Pirates 1-0, their fifth straight win over the Pirates, and they can [whispering] go for the sweep in a "Businessman's Special" tomorrow that starts at 11:30 CT.

Steve Stone wondered on the telecast whether the Cubs had won back-to-back one-run games on the road this year. Well, I checked. The Cubs haven't won back-to-back one-run games ANYWHERE in 2004, until tonight, and it is their first 1-0 win since Kerry Wood threw a two-hitter against the Marlins on July 19, 2003.

I wrote yesterday about something I did -- booking a business-related trip to New York on the possible first home playoff date -- that must have stirred the cosmos. Today, I did something else along the same lines.

I bought tickets for what would be game 1 and game 7 of the NLCS at St. Louis.

(Why not the other games? Because it took me a heck of a long time to get past Tickets.com's dreaded Virtual Waiting Room, even to get those tickets, and they're upper deck about halfway back, but at least I'll be in the park.)

Hope I get to use every single one of them, just like my Wrigley Field playoff ticket strips that arrived yesterday.

About today's game, there isn't much to say except to repeat that Z threw great, finally running out of gas having thrown 117 pitches, with one out in the eighth; he was in frequent trouble, allowing six hits and three walks, and the Pirates left eight on base, including the bases loaded when Sammy stretched out his entire body to take what would have been a bases-clearing double away from Ty Wigginton. In the vernacular, that's today's Web Gem, folks.

Meanwhile, LaTroy Hawkins, who had thrown three days in a row, was deemed unavailable tonight, and so was Ryan Dempster, who threw last night and got his second save of the season, and so Mike Remlinger came in to record his own second save of 2004, and he seems to do this with such a calm demeanor -- and he's an unusual relief pitcher, one who throws from a windup with no one on base. Most modern relievers throw from the stretch at all times, and I noticed the other day when David Weathers, normally a reliever, started the second game of the DH in Miami, he pitched from the stretch in the first inning.

I have suggested here and in the Cubs newsgroup that Remlinger might be an attractive alternative to Hawkins as closer, and he proved to be just that tonight.

And the home-run offense of the Cubs was shut down by Oliver Perez, who, although the Cubs beat him up pretty good last week in Chicago, is a terrific young lefthander, but he lost his command after he had retired the first fourteen batters of the game, and with the bases loaded he threw ball four to Z, who recorded his fifth RBI of the year with the walk.

Too bad Z can't pitch against the Pirates every day -- he was 5-0 against them this year (becoming the first pitcher to win five games in a season over the Pirates since Tom Seaver in 1973), with a 1.02 ERA in 35.1 innings. Terrific stuff, and maybe it'll even get Z some Cy Young votes. He's now 15-8, with two starts remaining, and a 2.64 ERA, for the moment leading the league (ahead of Randy Johnson's 2.74), and his seven K's tonight give him 176, good for eighth in the league.

Finally, today my eyes glazed over at some newsgroup discussions of just who we'd like to see win the remaining games among the contenders. First of all, after not being able to win in Miami for two years, the Phillies won their second in a row there, 12-4 tonight. For all intents and purposes, that eliminates the Marlins, and I think this is coming down to a three-team race, the Cubs, Astros and Giants -- but now with a wild-card in the wild-card, so to speak, with the Dodgers fading. They'll meet the Giants six times, three in San Francisco this weekend, and three in Los Angeles to end the season.

So who do we root for? The Giants to win out and win the division title, and the Dodgers to fade and finish behind the Cubs? Or do we root for Houston tonight, so that the Cubs can go ahead of San Francisco and control their own fate?

Like I said, eyes-glazing thought. Just win. The rest will take care of itself. Faith and hope, all.

:: posted by Al at 9:30 PM [+] ::
This Blog Now Syndicated!

Thanks to Andy Rutledge, who offered to walk me through the steps to set it up, I now have an RSS feed for this blog that you can subscribe to.

Best way to do it is to click on the "Subscribe With Bloglines" button on the left sidebar.

For those of you who like to check out many blogs with RSS, you're welcome!

:: posted by Al at 2:59 PM [+] ::
:: Tuesday, September 21, 2004 ::
Secret Weapon

I finally figured it out -- a secret weapon to help the Cubs win this thing.

Hear me out, OK?

As many of you know, I am a television director, and belong to the Directors Guild of America.

I serve on a couple of DGA boards. One of them is the Chicago Coordinating Committee, which met in downtown Chicago tonight, right during the time today's game was scheduled to be played.

When this meeting was scheduled, I knew I wouldn't be able to see much of this game, and when I left the meeting the Cubs had a 4-3 lead after eight. OK, you'll say, I got home just in time to see LaTroy Hawkins blow a save (ominously, this is seven of nine -- no Star Trek jokes, please -- one-run saves blown by Hawkins).

But I also got to see the Cubs, who have lived and died by the home run this year, win the game over the Pirates 5-4 in the tenth by having the following weird, uncharacteristic inning:

* A leadoff double by Corey Patterson on which Pirates LF Jason Bay attempted an ill-advised sliding catch. He touched the ball in fair territory -- had he let it drop, it might have dropped foul.

* Another successful sacrifice bunt by whoever's wearing the uniform that says "Perez" on it.

* An intentional walk to Aramis Ramirez -- putting him exactly 100 IBB's behind Barry Bonds (six to 106).

* A really rotten-looking strikeout from Moises Alou, and then...

* Salomon Torres, who was throwing sinkers to Alou, sunk one into the dirt that Jason Kendall played extremely poorly (Steve Stone was all over him for poor positioning, and that is unusual, since Kendall's usually a very good defensive catcher), and Patterson trotted home on the wild pitch with the winning run.

And then, Ryan Dempster, who may be a starter for the 2005 Cubs and a VERY important part of the 2004 (dare I say it?) postseason bullpen, mowed the Pirates down 1-2-3 in the last of the 10th for the second save he's ever had.

OK, you'll say -- that's one game credit to the DGA. But let me go further.

I also serve on the DGA's Eastern Directors Council, which meets several times a year in New York.

The next scheduled meeting is Saturday, October 9.

Yes, that's right -- the date of the possible first Cub home playoff game.

Today, I finalized plans to go to that meeting.

I figure that ought to do it. And yes, presuming it's a night game (and this being the identical postseason schedule to 1998, it ought to be), I can make it back from New York in time for the game that day.

So give the DGA an assist today, but most of the credit to Ramirez, who broke Ron Santo's team record for home runs by a 3B with his thirty-fourth, also matching his career high (set in 2001), and all the pitchers other than Hawkins.

The Giants/Astros game is just beginning as I write this, so the Cubs will be in one of two situations after it is over:

* still half a game behind the Giants, but 1 1/2 games ahead of Houston; or

* half a game ahead of San Francisco, who would then be tied with the Astros for second in the wild-card.

Either way, the Cubs pick up a game in the loss column on someone, and I'd think the Philadelphia win over Florida tonight -- the first time the Phillies have won in Miami in two years -- pretty much does the Marlins in, putting them five games out with twelve remaining.

Finally, if you are clicking on the game recap/boxscore links that I've put in my posts and on the top of this blog, you will notice that I've switched to Yahoo's links rather than ESPN's. The content is the same for either one, since both use wire service reports, but in recent weeks, ESPN's site has been redesigned, and not for the good, in my opinion. It takes longer to load and frequently crashes my browser.

Onward, tomorrow, with Carlos Zambrano (who was spotted in the dugout in the 10th, leading cheers with his cap on sideways) on the mound. Keep the faith.

:: posted by Al at 9:19 PM [+] ::
:: Monday, September 20, 2004 ::
Quiz Time!

The Cubs played two games today.

One was against a seventeen-game winner.

The other was against a guy who came in with a 4.61 ERA and hadn't started a game in six years.

Which game did they win?

Why, of course, the one against the seventeen-game winner, as they beat up Carl Pavano pretty good and won 5-1, with Mark Prior throwing one of his best games of the year, and not a moment too soon. I will, of course, quibble a bit with Dusty leaving him in for 129 pitches, but maybe he needed a game like that.

Against David Weathers, a reliever having such a bad year that he was traded by a bad team and then unconditionally released by another contender, the Astros, the Cubs looked like they were facing Roger Clemens, and lost the 2nd game 5-2. Weathers gave up only two hits in five innings, and the Cubs remembered that Matt Clement had started the game, not scoring any runs. Clement was gone early, after not having any control in the first inning, walking Juan Pierre to lead off the game (always a bad idea), then hitting Jeff Conine, and, rattled (you can always tell when Matt is rattled -- he goes and stomps around the back of the mound, which ought to be a signal for Michael Barrett to come out and settle him down), he gave up a three-run homer to Damion Easley, and for all intents and purposes, that was the game.

Give the ballclub credit -- they actually got a hit off Armando Benitez in the ninth, a Sammy Sosa single. That's notable because Benitez has been nearly unhittable all year, allowing only 31 hits in 65 innings. Then Todd Walker, who hasn't been all that good as a pinch-hitter, sent Juan Encarnacion over the right-field wall to catch what would have been a two-run homer. When Barrett then struck out to end the game, Nomar was on deck to pinch-hit -- maybe a sign that he'll be ready to play in Pittsburgh, though Neifi Perez has done a terrific job filling in.

I got an e-mail today from reader Richard Murphy, in which he neatly sums up the frustrations we all have with Corey Patterson, who last week looked like he had finally figured it all out, and looked great in the first game and lousy in the second:

Corey has a world of talent but I think he may be this generation's Shawon Dunston. Since his two homer game he has been abysmal, going 2 for 23 and striking out ten times. Corey's problem is that he's not getting any better. He will strike out 160 times this year (bad enough for a #3 hitter, inexcusable for a leadoff man); with any effort at all a good hitter could cut that down by 50 or 60. Not running on the fourth strikeout yesterday should've gotten him pulled. But that's Corey's problem. He doesn't care. He's going to do it his way, and if he doesn't lose his stubbornness it means he'll be about 60% of the player he could be. He has paid lip-service to changing his style with token efforts at bunting, but Neifi Perez makes him look like a little leaguer at that skill. I cringe every time he hits a homer because it reinforces that looping, uppercut, uncontrolled swing.

The best point made here, I think, is about the homers. Corey's got 23 and yes, he has won a couple of games this year with them. But he is NOT a home-run hitter, and the faster he realizes that, the better.

I wound up listening to part of the first game on the radio as I was going to pick up Rachel from school today. Dave Otto was filling in for Ron Santo, who's resting up from a heart scare over the weekend (and he thinks going to New York, which he hates, is going to help?).

Otto wasn't very good as a TV analyst in the two years that Steve Stone spent away. But he worked very well with Pat Hughes, and I do like his studio work for Fox Sports Net. He's a very capable backup announcer, at least on the radio side.

Also today, a package arrived from Daytona, Florida -- as promised, Andy Rayburn, the owner of the Cubs' affiliate in the Florida State League who Jeff and I met in the bleachers last month, sent me a team cap and a "2004 First-Half Champions" T-shirt. Thanks, Andy!

Going into this doubleheader (which had an announced crowd of 37,412, which reflects for the most part what the Marlins would have had for the Saturday 9/4 game -- they had announced that tickets for that game would be valid for this date unless you told them otherwise. Most of that number, I'd say, did attend, though hardly anyone for the entire DH.), I said I'd have been satisfied with a split. But you know what, after taking three of four in Cincinnati and winning the first game against one of the league's top pitchers, a split is a disappointment.

What's even worse is that after hanging on to the lead in the loss column over the Giants for more than two weeks, the second-game loss, while it maintained the half-game deficit, made the two clubs even in the loss column, with the Astros only a half-game further behind the Cubs.

By Thursday we ought to find out a lot more about the direction this race will take. The Cubs are playing the Pirates, who have given them fits this year (though after the sweep last week, the Cubs are 10-5 against them), and the Astros must visit San Francisco to play the Giants, who won two of three in Houston earlier this year.

The Cubs' next ten games are all against bad teams, all of whom the Cubs have dominated this year (21-10 vs. New York, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh), and I see no reason they shouldn't go at least 7-3 in those ten games, which would bring them home for the final series against the Braves with a 90-69 record, and I don't see either Houston or San Francisco doing that well over their next week and a half. The Marlins and Padres have already lost more games than that, so they'd pretty much have to go on ten-game winning streaks to match any of the top three contenders.

So, there it is, laid out in front of us. Fasten your seat belts.

:: posted by Al at 6:55 PM [+] ::
:: Sunday, September 19, 2004 ::
It's Been Thirty-Two Years

On October 4, 1972, the Cubs finished a disappointing second-place season, 11 games behind the division-winning Pirates, with a 2-1 loss to the 97-loss Phillies, in front of an intimate gathering of 3,445 at Wrigley Field.

Richard Nixon was about to be re-elected President of the United States.

The #1 hit that week on Chicago's top-40 radio station, WCFL was, unbelievably, "My Ding-A-Ling" by Chuck Berry.

And I was a junior in high school (yes, do the math, you can figure out how old I am).

Why is this important? Because before today's exciting 5-1, come-from-behind win over the Reds in Cincinnati, that was the last time the Cubs had back-to-back winning seasons -- in fact, that was the last of six consecutive winning years.

Today's win, the 82nd win of the year, clinched a winning season for the Cubs. If Dusty Baker has done nothing else for this franchise, he has at least restored a winning tradition. Criticize his in-game strategy all you want, but the man knows how to put together winning teams, and they win in September, when it means the most. The win also made the Cubs 10-5 in September, after a 19-8 September in 2003.

This isn't something we are used to, but we sure could get used to it.

You might say that Aramis Ramirez is the Cub MVP this year, but he's missed a fair amount of time. Or you might choose Moises Alou, who's had a solid year, or Derrek Lee, who has been hot this month.

But I have to pick Glendon Rusch. Where would this ballclub be without Rusch? Today, he threw six innings of one-hit ball before faltering slightly and allowing a run in the seventh, and even then he managed to work his way out of a first-and-third jam with two out that could have made the uphill climb more arduous. As it was, a 106-pitch, three-hit, two-walk, nine-strikeout performance is one of the Cubs' best by any of the starters this year. It's a shame that Rusch had to be taken out of the game before he could qualify for the win, but Ben Grieve, who pinch-hit for him, wound up driving in the tying run with a sacrifice fly, and the Cubs blew it open in the ninth off Danny Graves after taking advantage of a throwing error by Ryan Freel on a bunt by ... who else, Neifi Perez.

Today's offensive hero-for-the-day was Michael Barrett, who had two doubles and the second one put the game out of reach at 5-1. Barrett now has 63 RBI, the most for a Cub catcher since (and yes, I had to double-check this) Scott Servais had 63 in 1996. The last Cub catchers to have more than 63 RBI in a season were Rick Wilkins, who had a freaky 30 HR, 73 RBI year in 1993, and Jody Davis, with 74 in 1986. Barrett's defense has been criticized in some corners, and yes, he's not the defender that Damian Miller was last year, but his offensive contributions cannot be minimized.

Neither can those of Lee and Ramirez, who both have a chance to break the cherished marks of Ernie Banks and Ron Santo for homers and RBI at their respective positions, and the entire team is getting hot at the right time.

At this moment, the Cubs have again tied the Giants for the wild-card lead, and the game was so quick (two hours, twenty-two minutes) that the Giants will have to look at the final score before they even begin their game in California. UPDATE: Apparently they did, because they won again, darnitall, 4-2 over the Padres, to maintain their half-game lead.

Once again, the game was played in front of a crowd so loudly partisan for the Cubs it sounded like a home game. This type of game was about the last I'd have expected after twelve homers were hit in the first three games, but this just shows the Cubs have, at last, learned to adjust to the different conditions that exist on different days.

I hate to criticize Steve Stone, but he got something wrong today (and last night too). He kept saying that since "Todd Walker is a former Red", that he's familiar with the Reds' ballpark and how it plays.

Well, yes, Walker played for the Reds -- for the second half of 2001 and all of 2002. Cincinnati's new ballpark didn't open till 2003. Walker didn't play a single game in the GABP until this year.

But anyway, that's a minor quibble. Thanks, Glendon. On to Florida, with happiness and hope.

:: posted by Al at 2:44 PM [+] ::

Moises Alou had two homers.

Greg Maddux was sailing along.

There was another road-game loud, Cub-partisan crowd (a sellout of 41,829).

The Cubs went in knowing that the Giants had lost and so a win would put them into first place in the wild-card race.

So what went wrong?

Well, first of all, I'm not going to blame Wendell Kim for this one. Yes, he waved Mark Grudzielanek around third in the eighth inning with what would have been the tying run, but I think I'd have done that too. It took a perfect throw from Wily Mo Pena to get him, and even then the play was close. Chip Caray, of all people, had some insight on this when the play was replayed, when he noted that Grudz had taken a really wide turn around third and that tiny bit of extra time might have been the difference in beating the throw or not.

It was Wily Mo's day, anyway. The one thing that's bitten Maddux all year has been the long ball, and Wily Mo hit two, including a monstrous shot to straightaway center that exceeded 450 feet, and D'Angelo Jimenez also homered, and the Reds beat the Cubs in another depressing one-run game, 6-5. The homers ran Maddux' total allowed to a somewhat alarming 29, only one fewer than the number of walks he's allowed this season -- and he didn't walk anyone last night.

Live by the homer, die by the homer. The Cubs have now extended their team record to 219, and allowed 151, which isn't a bad ratio. But knowing that the GABP in Cincinnati is a launching pad, maybe Maddux should have pitched around Pena when he came up in the sixth. There have now been twelve home runs in the first three games in the series -- and those have all been in night games, when the ball typically doesn't carry as well as it does in the daytime.

That's why it's a good thing that Glendon Rusch is throwing this afternoon, against left-handed hitters like Sean Casey and Adam Dunn, neither of whom hit as well against lefties; neither does Jimenez, though Rusch ought to pitch carefully around Pena, who has hit nine homers in 85 at-bats against left-handed pitching and is only twenty-two years old and could be primed for a breakout season in 2005.

That's in the future, though, and for now the Cubs will simply have to lament a missed opportunity. This would be more worrisome if there were fewer games remaining, but:

* there are still seventeen games left, twelve of them against teams with losing records;

* the Cubs still lead the Giants in the loss column;

* the Marlins appear to be fading out of the race, with their overburdened pitching staff, and that bodes well for the doubleheader on Monday;

* the Cub pitching staff, even with its recent woes, is still second in the majors in fewest runs allowed;

* the offense did its job again last night, getting twelve hits and three walks and three homers, the third from Sammy Sosa, who is now one homer short of tying Harmon Killebrew for seventh place on the all-time list.

Finally, the Cubs have been pleased with the progress of Kyle Farnsworth's recovery from his stupid kicking injury of the year (remember a couple of years ago? He was kicking a football around the outfield during BP and hurt himself then too), and he may be activated as soon as today.

I'll let you decide whether that's good news or bad news.

When the Cubs went in to this series I had hoped they'd win three of four. As I've said several times before...

Win today and all is forgiven. Keep the faith and hope.

:: posted by Al at 4:35 AM [+] ::

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