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Lazarus Ain't Got Nothin' On Us
by Derek Smart
Never expecting to take three of four from the Padres, let alone win six of seven on a west coast trip, I'm sort of speechless now that the Cubs have managed to play themselves back into relevance. Sort of. Bulletman, to the Pointmobile!
It had to end sometime, and it seemed fitting that the game that ended the Cubs' winning streak also brought a close to Derrek Lee's streak of consecutive hits and times on base. If fact, Friday night was one of the few times all year I've seen The Savior look utterly helpless at the dish, seemingly unable to recognize any pitch that came his way.
That counts as a prolonged slump for Derrek these days, and he summarily broke free during the next two games, going five for ten with three doubles, two runs scored, and two RBIs. As David Cassidy once squawked in a voice full of teenage fervor, "I think I love you!"
A couple of weeks ago, I was fairly certain that we were seeing the end of the non-sarcastic exclamation point era, but that was before his recent hitting streak which now stands at fourteen games. Thanks to David Pinto's nifty Day-by-Day database, we can see that since the beginning of the streak on May 23, Neifi! has been stroking an impressive, if odd, .422/.415/.625 (no walks and a sacrifice fly will do that do a guy's OBP).
During that span, he's also hit four doubles and three home runs while knocking in eleven and scoring twelve himself. Over the season thus far, he is 53rd in the Majors in VORP, putting him ahead of names like Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Guillen, Cliff Floyd, Hank Blalock, Aramis Ramirez, Brad Wilkerson, and Carlos Beltran.
Granted, VORP is adjusted for position, and in the case of a player like Guerrero, he's been hurt relative to Neifi! by time off due to injury, but that's still an impressive feat for a man who, before he joined the Cubs last year, was consistently putting up VORPs in the negatives. Us Cub fans have moaned a lot about our lousy luck over the last couple of years, but this is a case where the Lady deigned to smile.
Speaking of luck, how about facing a very good team in the Padres while nearly their entire club is fighting off various forms of a respiratory illness. Not only did it ensure that Ryan Klesko was unavailable for the last two games, but Geoff Blum (who besides being a designated Cub Killer had been hot in general of late) was out on Sunday, as was, most importantly of all, Jake Peavy.
The Cubs didn't do a whole lot against Woody Williams, despite his being fresh off a month on the DL, but the shortness of his outing that his recent return necessitated certainly helped matters. Besides, any day you don't have to face a man who just might be the best pitcher in the National League, is a good day, indeed.
Carlos the Fist is going to be wild, that's just what you get when you have the type of movement that he does. While this can certainly be a bad thing (see: three first inning walks), you'd rather have the crazy zips and dips than nothing at all. Sometimes they can be downright helpful.
Take, for instance, his sixth inning strikeout of Phil Nevin. Blanco set up for a ball on the outside corner, and in watching the replay, that's exactly where Z threw it. At least, that's where it started to go. That was before it took a hard right about halfway to the plate, busting in on Nevin's hands when he was already tossing the head of the bat out to the far black.
What makes a pitcher like Mark Prior great when he's on is the ability to hit the catchers glove at will. Had he been on the hill on a good day in a similar situation, he would have stuck the pill right where Blanco asked him to, and while Nevin might well have struck out on it, he would have at least been swinging in the vicinity of where the ball was, giving him a chance to put it in play.
What Zambrano's ball did - begin by heading for the requested spot, then veering sharply away from it's intended target - gave Nevin no chance, and even that might be overestimating things. Missing wide was Z's theme for the day - his sinker appeared to be moving laterally rather than vertically, but I'm not bright enough to tell you why - and when he finally understood that, he began to take control of the game.
All that late movement can be both wonderful and terrible for a pitcher, but you'd rather have it than not. What separates Z from other hurlers with late action on their pitches - besides that fact that almost no one has the degree of movement that his tosses have - is his burgeoning ability to adjust to what the ball's doing for him during a particular game. The more consistently he's able to recognize what the day hath wrought at an early stage and make it work for him, the more he'll have days like yesterday.
Despite only sporting a batting average of .200 since his return, Todd Walker looks pretty solid at the plate. I'd liken the stage he's at to where Michael Barrett was at the end of April, and Aramis Ramirez was in the middle of May - hitting the ball hard, but having an inordinate number of those balls fall for outs. This will be ending soon, and I think we're on the verge of seeing The Shadow start to darken the lives of opposing pitchers once again.
It's the return of John Koronka tonight, and he'll be facing Gustavo Chacin of the Only Team in Canada Blue Jays. Both teams will have a long flight in from the west coast, so I don't expect that to be as much of a factor as Koronka's hittablility. With Roy Halliday facing poor Sergio Mitre in game three (geez, he's been getting the tough assignments of late), tonight could be the contest that decides the series.