Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com
Write Phil at phil.bencomo @ gmail.com
Just Like That
by Derek Smart
A few short days ago - Saturday, to be exact - it seemed as if the sky were falling. The Cubs had played terribly since coming off the break, dropping back into a tie for the division lead - which they would have lost entirely that selfsame day had not the Astros ended the streaking Brewers victory string - and one of the club's primary strengths - it's patience on offense - had utterly deserted them, as nearly every player in the lineup slumped terribly while trying to hit nine-run homers on the first pitch they saw.
Today - a mere four days later - the division lead has grown to four, as the Cubs have taken the Brewers' three best pitchers and worked them to the bone, forcing them to constantly go deep in counts and either walk them, give them something to hit, or get an out while giving a pound of flesh. The result has been three consecutive wins in the enemy's lair where the Milwaukee starting staff has gone beyond the sixth but once, with that 6.2 frame effort by CC Sabathia requiring 124 pitches to complete.
This fails, of course, to mention the pitching the Cubs have received, which has been nothing short of spectacular in general, and during the last two games in particular. If you believe in baseball teams sending messages in July, then you have to think this one was loud and clear, "The road to this division title goes through us, and if you want it, you'll have to take it." I'm not sure I believe in that sort of thing, but it's still fun to imagine.
In other words, what we're seeing, ladies and gentleman, is the return of Cubs Baseball v2008. And not a moment too soon.
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Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure this is the first time the Cubs have had Alfonso Soriano both fully healthy and productive. He was physically fine at the beginning of last year, but he didn't get his bat going until the first time he hurt his leg. While that wasn't bad enough for him to hit the DL, he was still tentative on the bases, and of course was even moreso once he hurt himself badly enough to get listed later in the year. In fact, that injury was severe enough that he was still having issues once this season started, and only seemed to be getting comfortable running at the point where his hand was broken.
Now, however, he's clearly got his legs fully and solidly under him, and the ball looks like the moon, to boot. He's getting hits, stealing bases, and for the first time in his Cub tenure, he looks like guy they signed to a franchise-record contract. This, my friends, is what Alfonso Soriano was brought to Chicago to do. I, for one, am enjoying the hell out of it.
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Chad Gaudin, people. If the Cubs make the playoffs and go deep, and if their bullpen has as much to do with that success as I think it will have to, the answer to the question of 'why?' will be Chad Gaudin.
He has thrown very well, and in doing so, has done something of high import beyond the work itself, which is give Lou someone else he can lean on late in a game. This has the natural cascade effect of keeping the other big arms - Carlos Marmol, I'm looking at you - fresh enough to be productive. With Gaudin, the late-inning workload can be more evenly spread, allowing the bullpen as a whole to be more rested and effective, something they clearly weren't late last year. Much as I crush on Rich Harden, the trickle-down of Gaudin's acquisition is nearly as important to this team's chances of late-season success.
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If you want to take one word and use it describe the first three games of this series, that word would have to be 'defense'. It was the Brewers' Achilles' Heel last year, and while they've done some things to attempt to rectify that issue - most notably moving Braun off of third, and getting Mike Cameron on board - it's still a massive problem this season, at least if you extrapolate what we've seen in this series.
The Cubs got their second lead in game one because Rickie Weeks couldn't close the deal on a double-play.
Ryan Braun clearly misjudged his likelihood of making a play on Fukudome's hit in the sixth inning of game two, turning a single into a bases-clearing triple, setting up the decisive frame of the contest.
If Prince Fielder can catch Jason Kendall's throw last night, the Cubs exit the first inning scoreless instead of up by two.
I'm not saying any of these plays were easy, but I guarantee you if they're made they don't make anyone's 'interweb diamond' highlight reel. They were that half-notch above routine that separates being solid with the glove from being mediocre, and it's a type of play that multiple guys in Milwaukee just aren't capable of making on a regular basis right now. If the Brewers fail to make the playoffs, this inability to make unspectacular yet plus-routine plays will be a major contributing factor.
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There's a chance to sweep this afternoon, and with Rich Harden taking the hill against Dave Bush, it's hard not to feel like a loss would be pretty disappointing. However, the fact is, taking this game tonight would be gravy. Tell me going in that the Cubs take 3 of 4, and I'm dancing like a drunken baby - which is actually three levels of coordination higher than my natural state. So, if things go awry today, just remember the deal you'd have taken four days ago, and be happy you got what you needed.
That said, boys, I'd sure looooooooove me some yummy gravy.