Baseball Toaster Cub Town
Monthly archives: August 2007


2007-08-31 10:40
by Phil Bencomo

Poor relief work lost the Brewers another game, but Ryan Dempster came very close -- 90 feet, actually -- to replacing "Brewers" with "Cubs" in the first clause of this sentence. Does he enjoy knowing that, during outings like this, fans are on the verge of falling to the ground unconscious, their faces a purplish-blue, as they hold their collective breath waiting for him to just close out the game already?

No, you say? Well, it sure seems like it sometimes.

But I shouldn't be too hard on the man. Before last night, he had made ten consecutive scoreless appearances, lowering his ERA to a shade over three. He's now 16th among NL relievers in WPA, a few places below Carlos Marmol, he of two more scoreless innings last night. Only four NL teams can boast two or more relievers in the WPA top 16: Los Angeles, Arizona, St. Louis and, of course, Chicago. It's no surprise, then, that all four are in the playoff hunt.

* * * *

Presented without comment because, really, it speaks for itself: The Cubs are now the only NL Central team over .500.

* * * *

After his first few at-bats last night, Alfonso Soriano had me worried. (As a general rule, batters are NOT supposed to swing at balls that bounce in front of the plate.) But in his final two plate appearances, he looked far more competent. He had no rehab assignment, so I'm inclined to believe that, after a few games, the rust has been removed.

* * * *

Houston, which will begin a series with the Cubs in less than an hour, may be 14 games under, but the Astros did just take two of three from St. Louis. Luckily, the Cubs will not have to face Roy Oswalt.

Credit Where Credit Is Due
2007-08-29 08:45
by Phil Bencomo

I've written some scathing things about Jacque Jones over the years, here and elsewhere, ranging from criticism of his play to the size of his contract.

I bring this up not as a prelude to further condemnation, but to my deepest congratulations.

Jacque Jones, you were drenched, day after day, for so much of your Cub career by steaming vitriol spewed forth from the mouths of harsh fans and the keyboards of harsher writers who, not content to merely curse your name, pelted you with enough statistical acronyms and figures to make even the strongest of men break under the weight of it all.

But you persevered. You focused your mind and body on the task at hand, leaving swirling trade winds and critics to simmer unnoticed.

And you've finally succeeded. I didn't think you'd do it, Jacque; I'll admit I long ago lost faith. But you have done it; your contributions over the last two months, despite the immense burdens on your back, will be recognized -- who could ignore an OPS of .944 in August? -- and so I commend you for helping the Cubs to first place with your bat and glove.

And you're even hitting lefties better (.263/.333/.368), with an OPS against them (.702) well above your career mark of .630!

But before your head gets too large, Jacque, remember: The bigger they are, the harder they fall, and those cheers will quickly become jeers with a cold week or two.

Do I Smell Blackmail?
2007-08-28 09:20
by Phil Bencomo

I have very few gripes with Lou Piniella. Perhaps it's the result of Dusty Baker and his appalling idiosyncrasies; anyone with even the smallest degree of competence would seem a mental giant beside Baker.

But I simply do not understand why Piniella insists on placing Alfonso Soriano atop the batting order, especially since Soriano himself has stated publicly that he cares not.

Cubs manager Lou Piniella doesn't appear to have given a minute's thought to a favorite topic of Chicago talk radio: dropping Soriano into the middle of the order — third and fifth were the most frequently suggested options — so that the pesky Ryan Theriot could remain in the leadoff spot.

Phil Rogers offers some tortured logic today, first rightly saying that Soriano's place in the batting order has nothing to do with Soriano's state of mind, before offering up this gem:

Piniella's concern is constructing a lineup he can win with even if the team's second-half power outage continues—the Cubs have hit an NL-low 30 homers since the All-Star break.

By hitting Soriano first, he has Theriot available for the No. 2 spot.

As if the Cubs don't have any other capable players to bat second, or that Theriot cannot bat second without Soriano before him.

Rogers says the Soriano-Theriot combination is far superior to any other

That's a much better combination at the top of the order than the ones that Piniella used while Soriano was out: Theriot-Jacque Jones (13 times); Theriot-Mark DeRosa (2 times); Theriot-Jason Kendall (2 times); Theriot-Mike Fontenot (1 time); and Theriot-Ronny Cedeno (1 time).

but evidently failed to do even the simplest of fact-checking. The 1-2 combination that Piniella used most often during Soriano's absence was, in fact, outstanding. Theriot batting leadoff: .314/.358/.443. Jacque Jones batting second: .333/.368/.528. Combined OPS: 1.696. Compare that to the Soriano-Theriot combination: 1.624 combined OPS.

It doesn't take an advanced statistician to determine that Soriano, with his slugging prowess, would better serve the team and boost run production by batting in the middle of the order. And to argue that Soriano should bat first because that forms the best possible combination, when such is simply not the case, is completely ridiculous. The Theriot-Jones combo has outperformed the Soriano-Theriot configuration, plain and simple.

So why has Piniella steeled himself against any possible lineup that does not include Soriano at the top? All season he has shown something not seen at Wrigley during the Baker era: The tendency to play the hot hand, the combination that is winning games. He's let Mike Fontenot, Matt Murton, and even Daryle Ward ride hot streaks until they cool. Why turn from the successful combination of Theriot and Jones now?

"We'll put Soriano back in the leadoff spot, Theriot in the two hole, and then we'll adjust," Piniella said.

There is no doubting that Soriano's return to the lineup will help the club -- even after missing several weeks, his VORP is third-highest among Cub batters, and by no slim margin, either -- but why does Piniella not recognize that he is squandering an opportunity to further boost production?

Some say Soriano is most comfortable batting leadoff -- though he did make clear that he doesn't care where he bats -- but who's to say a move would stunt his production, or that he couldn't grow comfortable batting fifth? He has spent this season all of 37 at-bats outside of the leadoff slot, hardly enough at-bats to draw any conclusion. And the last time he took the bulk of his at-bats lower in the order -- 497 at-bats batting fifth in 2005 -- he did well, with an OPS from the fifth slot just nine points lower than his current mark of .847. He can bat lower in the order and still have success.

Really, I see no reasoning behind Piniella's decision. All the evidence says bat Soriano lower, but Lou has, for whatever reason, turned on the blinders. I can only hope this decision doesn't end up costing the Cubs the division.

* * * *

Tonight marks the start of a pivotal three-game set with Milwaukee, the last time the Cubs and Brewers will meet this season. The Brewer starting rotation won't cause the Cubs much angst -- all three starters the Cubs will face have ERAs near or above five -- but Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder have made mincemeat of Cub pitchers this season, with seven home runs against the Cubs between the pair.

The game begins at 7:05, Rich Hill vs. Jeff Suppan.

Camping Out
2007-08-27 10:40
by Phil Bencomo

If you found the weekend quiet around here, know that I was enjoying quiet of my own -- camping with the family at Starved Rock.

The majority of campsites weren't flooded, ours included, but the Illinois River was:


* * * *

The way the Brewers are playing, they'll be lucky to finish the season above .500. 9-21 over their last 30, and just swept by San Francisco ... the Cubs had better take advantage and give themselves some breathing room.

Now if only the Cardinals would cooperate...

* * * *

Number of the day: 54.

As in the percentage of people (as of 11:30 CT) who believe Mark Prior's role is that of a starting pitcher. 3466 votes have been cast.

Which leads me to wonder: What sort of people vote in these online polls? A majority, not merely a plurality, of voters envision Prior as some sort of feel-good Disney character, beating all odds -- and past injuries -- to make a triumphant return to the starting rotation and lead the Cubs to sweet, sweet postseason glory.

Come on now, people.

It's time to face reality. The man can't do it anymore, plain and simple. It happens to all ballplayers, some sooner than others; skills diminish, roles change. Kerry Wood finally came to terms with himself and his capabilities, and he reached the conclusion that Prior should come to. Polls like the linked above only fuel Prior's fantasies; only 15.8% voted "bullpen."

But perhaps I'm selling the voting masses short. The poll does not specify a league -- even a sport -- when it asks, "What should Mark Prior's role be?" So perhaps the public has wisely determined that Prior's only hope of starting again is in a slow-pitch softball league, where he can lob the ball underhand without fear of shoulder and/or elbow damage.

But I doubt Prior will fall so far. The Cubs will follow the Kerry Wood regimen: Sign him to a one-year deal, get him healthy, and then stick him in the bullpen. The Cubs have invested so much time and money that I can't imagine the team will do anything but hold on to him. The opportune time to shed Prior passed years ago; if he amounts to anything, it will be as a reliever. For that reason alone, the Cubs should, and probably will, try him out of the bullpen, making it clear that failure means the end of his career with the Cubs.

* * * *

No game today. The Cubs start a three-game set with Milwaukee tomorrow, and Alfonso Soriano will be back in the lineup.

The Storm Has Passed Over
2007-08-24 08:25
by Phil Bencomo

Everybody all right?

Thankfully, we got through the storms without any basement flooding or damage to the house. But funnel clouds were spotted in the area, the retention ponds could retain no more, the cul-de-sac across the street filled with so much water that mailboxes were half-submerged by the evening, and the local pond rose several feet and spilled out into the neighboring park.

How was it throughout the rest of the area?

Cubs Pick Up Monroe
2007-08-23 16:07
by Phil Bencomo

From Yahoo! Sports:

The Chicago Cubs on Thursday acquired outfielder Craig Monroe and a cash consideration from the Detroit Tigers for a player to be named.

Buck Coats was designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster, and Jake Fox is expected to be sent down to accommodate Monroe.

Says Paul Sullivan:

Monroe will likely get most of the starts in left against lefties, and will also be a valuable late-inning pinch-hitter. Monroe will play left until Alfonso Soriano gets back, and then primarily play in right field.

2007 Splits

Against righties: .190/.244/.308
Against lefties: .302/.317/.542

At home: .199/.263/.322
On the road: .244/.265/.424

* * * *

Oh, and the Cubs lost to San Francisco today, 4-1.

The Cubs now head to Arizona, where they, fortunately, will not have to face Brandon Webb.

Don't Be Stubborn, Now
2007-08-23 10:02
by Phil Bencomo

A quick word on Soriano: Lou, please listen to him.

[Soriano] also said he would be willing to bat lower in the order, at least short-term, where his speed is less important than in the leadoff spot.

''Anywhere in the lineup, it doesn't matter,'' he said. ''I just want to be in the lineup. I want to be back and help my team.''

Piniella reiterated that Soriano will go back into the leadoff spot when he returns, regardless of how well Ryan Theriot has hit there in his absence (.351 batting average, .377 on-base percentage).

A Matter Of Perspective
2007-08-23 09:44
by Phil Bencomo

If you do not raise your eyes you will think that you are the highest point.
-Antonio Porchia

A come-from-behind win can be viewed a number of ways. The first is rather pessimistic: Why were they behind in the first place? I'm willing to dismiss questions like these because, ultimately, I only care that the team is scoring runs, not when it is. After all, a run in the ninth counts the same as a run in the first. Not that I'd want late-inning dramatics to become a regular occurrence (I'd rather go ahead early and stay ahead)... And last night, anyway, the Cubs weren't behind for long; the two teams were tied for much of the game.

The second view is much more encouraging: Oh, what a wonderful team! They can never be counted out, no matter the inning or deficit! Very few teams are actually so good as to warrant such absolute exclamations. More often than not, these statements are a product of pure emotion -- which I've succumbed to from time to time -- after a stirring victory, statements that don't hold true for long.

The third view is much more realistic: A bit of luck, shoddy relief work on the part of the opposition, hitters finally figuring out a pitcher after two or three at-bats. It's a combination of those things that really result in come-from-behind wins.

Take last night. The top of the 10th inning: A key hit from a hot hitter, a passed ball, a walk, an error ... the Cubs score two runs and pull out a win. It doesn't say so much about the Cubs as it does the Giants.

But any way you look at it, it's still a win -- one that puts the Cubs a full game ahead of Milwaukee with the chance for a sweep of San Francisco today.

Giant Happenings
2007-08-21 15:50
by Phil Bencomo

The last time the Cubs faced San Francisco -- scratch that, the last time these two teams met, nobody cared about the Giants; it was the Cubs vs. Barry Bonds -- the Giants sat firmly in last place, 13.5 games out, with no hope of a turnaround.

The good news is threefold: The Giants are still in last place, now by 15.5 games, and the Barry Bonds circus folded up its tents and left the nation's consciousness weeks ago.

But best of all, the Brewers -- the team many forgot about over the course of the four-game Cardinal series, and that is now tied with the Cubs after picking up a game last night -- get treated to a three-game set with the Diamondbacks, who lead the NL with 71 wins.

St. Louis, though, tonight plays the first of three games against Florida, a team nearly as abysmal as San Francisco.

* * * *

Let the rejoicing begin:

The Chicago Cubs optioned infielder Ronny Cedeno to Triple-A Iowa...

...right where he belongs.

* * * *

Jason Marquis is on the mound tonight. After a strong start, Marquis has faltered, seeing his ERA rise from 3.31 on July 1 to 4.25 a month and a half later. His 106 ERA+ is nothing spectacular, but nobody was so delusional as to believe the Cubs were signing an ace when Marquis inked his deal last winter. If Marquis finishes the season with his current ERA, I'll be perfectly content.

Rainy Days
2007-08-20 07:05
by Phil Bencomo

Carlos Zambrano did indeed look rejuvenated yesterday. But the weather had other plans, and Zambrano's three perfect innings went for naught. No makeup date has been announced.

* * * *

You know, I don't normally mind the rain -- a few notable exceptions being the times that storms have resulted in an unwanted basement swimming pool -- but the last few weeks have been pretty darn exasperating. For the second time in three weeks, my weekend 16-inch softball games (I play a mean center field) have been washed out. When you drive by and see a small pond where the infield used to be, and, in fact, when only the backstop and fences remind you that said small pond is actually a softball field, you know there won't be any games played for a while.

A Weight Lifted
2007-08-19 09:20
by Phil Bencomo

Carlos Zambrano will make his first post-extension-signing start today (weather permitting). Jim Hendry said that the negotiations were to blame for Carlos' poor outing last week, and Carlos confirmed that the deal was on his mind. With the deal completed, I fully expect to see a rejuvenated Zambrano, much like the Carlos of mid-season, today and until season's end.

* * * *

St. Louis may be better than its hobbled roster would indicate, but that doesn't mean the Cards are very good. There's a reason the club's expected record, per runs scored and runs allowed, is 54-66. St. Louis' losses to start the current series shout, "Regression! Regression!"

* * * *

The Cubs, with 99, have the third-fewest home runs in the league, but are second in doubles with 258, three behind league-leading Philadelphia. In AVG, OBP and SLG, the Cubs are decidedly average.

The result: a mediocre offense. The Cubs rank eighth in the league in runs scored, roughly 100 below the leader and 100 above the inept.

So count me among those excited to see the team hitting the ball out of the ballpark with increased frequency as of late. Even Jason Kendall managed to poke one out last week.

And while home runs aren't everything, it would do wonders for my peace of mind if the Cubs at least out-homered Pittsburgh.

Zambrano's New Deal
2007-08-17 12:30
by Phil Bencomo

It's one of the biggest Cub stories of the year, and The Griddle beat me to it: Carlos Zambrano has finally signed a contract extension, five years for $91.5 million.

One has to wonder how much he would have made as a free agent -- Zambrano himself had been talking $20 million a year -- and how much he's really worth, but a pitcher of Z's caliber, age and history is going to receive top dollar. The man has his flaws, like all people do, and this season will be remembered for more than his on-field performance (that itself with ups and downs), but there is no doubting his tremendous talent and achievements past and present.

Every year, questions arise about his health and how long he'll last. Again, one has to wonder whether such concerns will soon be validated, but the Cubs would have been foolish to let Carlos, of age 26 and career ERA+ of 130, walk away from the team.

And the fact that Zambrano was so willing, like Aramis Ramirez before him, to sacrifice free agency -- more money be damned -- and stay with the Cubs speaks volumes about the Cubs, players and executives both, especially with the team's sale looming. The organization must be doing something right if its star players are walking away from millions of dollars to stay put. Yes, $91.5 million is an awfully large amount of money regardless, but money is money, and many players so despise their organizations that free agency can't come fast enough. Apparently, such is not the case with the Cubs, which can only mean good things.

Now, with the contract hoopla settled, Zambrano should be able to fully focus on what he does best: Pitch. And it couldn't come at a better time. The Cubs are in the midst of a four-game series with red-hot St. Louis, a team left for dead months ago that is now only 2.5 games out of first. Add the Cards to the list of NL Central teams that have pulled a 180, right behind the Cubs and the tanking Brewers.

UPDATE: Excerpts from the press conference:

Jim Hendry:Certainly the relationship factor that Carlos has with all of us in the Cubs was vital to us getting this done. I don't know of too many cases in history that a young man would have passed up the opportunity to hit the streets. I think we all know there was bigger pots of gold out there for him. The higher market clubs in need of great young pitching. The market would have been totally significant.

Carlos always assured me he wanted to stay here, and he wanted to win here.

It would have been a lot easier for him to just say, "Well, you know what, I'll give you a good shot in November, but I'm going to go out and see what's out there."

It certainly is a big statement. Other players have made that statement that have been here. Derrek Lee have that statement after the year that he had. It's no secret that Aramis could have made more money in the offseason. I think you see a group of people, which happens at a lot of premier franchises, they enjoy where they're at, the don't want to leave, they feel good about the direction that we're going, and they love the fans here. The city's the greatest, the ballpark's the greatest. I don't think that he takes lightly the amount of dollars this is, or does anybody look at that with any kind of non-serious mode. I think that this is a great place to play, and most players that are quality major league players that have been here, they like it here. You see it all the time. The new players that come in, the Jason Kendalls, Nomar when he was here, high-profile guys. Eric Karros. They loved their experience here. I think that bodes well moving into the future, if we can continue to have a balance that we have now of our home-grown players playing well and augmenting that with outside people that really want to be here.

My strong belief is that we certainly couldn't have replaced Carlos. I didn't have an appetite to be on the free agent pitching market all winter. There was nobody close to his ability available.

Barry Praver: We understand that in this era of extraordinary player contracts, that it's easy to become jaded by the numbers that we see out there today. But we want you all to know that we do not take your commitment lightly. We know this is a huge commitment on the part of the Cubs.

It became very apparent to all of us, from the beginning and throughout these negotiations, that we were dealing with two people, namely Jim and Carlos, who have a very strong relationship, none that we've ever seen between a player and general manager, cultured by ten-plus years in the Cubs organization.

I can't sit here and tell you tell you that this deal gets done without the trust and respect that these two have for each other.

But the one thing that did remain constant through this entire endeavor was Carlos' burning desire to remain a Cub, and certainly he has demonstrated that here today by entering into this agreement with the Cubs on the doorstep of free agency, in which, as Jim mentioned, clearly he would have been the premier pitcher in this year's class. And Carlos, what I hope for you is that you become in this era one of the rare players that has the opportunity to stay with the entire organization throughout his whole career.

Carlos Zambrano: I feel happy right now, and I feel comfortable right now. But it's not enough. I have a mission to complete, and I have a lot of ways to go with my teammates to lead my team to the promised land. That will complete the mission. It's not enough when you retire and you don't have your ring. When you come to play baseball, you have a team that you can win.

We have everything to take this team to the promised land. That's the main concern right now, the main thing that we have to finish this year and through the years.

Not everything is about money. I know that if go to the free agency that there's a lot of teams that will come to me and offer me more, but I feel comfortable here, I feel good here, my family feels good here, my wife. This is my town, my home, my city, and I love Chicago. I love the Cubs. Jim known me since I was 16 years old. So, I like to stay here, and thank God that I'm staying here for a longer time.

It's something that was on my mind, and I was thinking about that. But now, a fresh mind, and I'm ready to go, I'm ready to lead this team to the World Series.

Game Of Inches
2007-08-15 09:25
by Phil Bencomo

Oh, how the fans wanted that one. The ball left Mike Fontenot's bat, and the crowd, already on its feet with two outs in the last of the ninth, erupted. Surely it was gone, and the game won.

But it was not to be, and Norris Hopper -- perhaps as stunned as the dejected fans who would turn and head for the exits a moment later -- found the ball nestled in his glove with his back against the ivy. "Why can't the ivy eat up a player every once in a while?" I mumbled as I marked on my scorecard -- F9 -- the final out of the game.

If the wind had been blowing like it had earlier in the evening, would the ball have landed in the basket, instead of mere inches from a rousing, come-from-behind victory? Oh, hypothetical goodness.

Carlos Zambrano just didn't have much of anything last night; he labored from the very first inning. And for the second time this season, Zambrano left a start with no strikeouts to his name. The 13 hits he allowed tied a career high.

But, I suppose, all hope is not lost. For a while last night, it looked like the Cubs would drop another game behind -- the Brewers took an early 3-0 lead, and the Cubs were already down by four; fans were groaning -- but St. Louis (suddenly only 4.5 games out) took care of Milwaukee, leaving the Cubs a game and a half back.

And the Cubs managed their first three-homer game in quite some time -- over two weeks, actually. Not coincidentally, Aramis Ramirez was back in the lineup.

Don't give up on this team quite yet.

* * * *

Ted Lilly vs. Phil Dumatrait at 7:05 tonight.

Except Without The Aliens And Starships
2007-08-12 08:45
by Phil Bencomo

Maybe it's because I've seen the films a few too many times, or because I've had too much free time lately to think about such things, but either way, I can't help but look at the 2007 Cubs and think: Star Wars. (The Original Trilogy, mind you.)

The parallels are simple enough. The Cubs started out the season very poorly, just as the Rebels fell on hard times in Episode IV; early on it looked like all hope was lost. The Princess captured, peaceful Alderaan destroyed -- and the Cubs were nearly ten games under.

But wait! Young Luke Skywalker shows up and destroys the Death Star, delivering a terrible blow to the Empire, and for a brief moment the Rebels are on top. The Cubs, too, were on top for a short time, taking hold of first place by percentage points with the help of dashing young heroes like Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall and Mike Fontenot.

But it was not to last. Currently, I'd say the Cubs are still struggling through Episode V. A 4-7 mark in August -- things are not going as I'd like them to. And like Luke, the Cubs may have lost a key appendage (i.e. Soriano), but the replacements -- a new hand and Matt Murton -- have turned out to be more than capable.

So when you think about the season this way, yesterday's 15-2 drubbing doesn't really strike the same ominous chord that it might from another perspective, largely because if we're talking Star Wars, that means Episode VI and victory (complete with an Ewok celebration) is still to come.

* * * *

So long as we're drawing parallel lines here, why not include Jacque Jones? He strikes me as a Lando Calrissian-type guy. The whole double crossing business is hard to forgive, and I'm sure many Cub fans would have liked to get their hands on Jones -- like Chewbacca on Lando -- even just a few weeks ago, but Lando does redeem himself in the end and plays a vital role in the Rebel Alliance's eventual victory.

Jones, it seems, is on the same path. He's is a big reason why the Cubs' record in August isn't a lot worse than 4-7; he's done nothing but hit all month, to the tune of .425/.465/.650.

2007-08-09 17:30
by Phil Bencomo

My body reacts pretty strongly to mosquito bites; I'm currently sporting bites on my legs that look more like welts -- crimson-colored blotches each about the size of a dime. Not fun, especially since those cursed buggers seem to nail me every time I go outside in the evening.

But more importantly, the things itch like crazy! At times, I'm tempted to dash to the garage, grab a chainsaw, and methodically remove affected appendages. "HA!" I think to myself. "I'll stop the itching and reduce my bodily surface area, making me less vulnerable to future attacks!" Oh, don't worry -- I always stop myself well short of the garage, but at times like those, it's hard to convince myself that, really, the saw is NOT the best option.

I've also found that the Cubs induce just about the same reaction. I watch them get multiple guys on with less than two outs -- and leave them stranded. Again. And again. And again.

And with the Cubs, I can't just coat them in Cortaid like I do my legs. I can only sit and watch, irritated beyond belief. Trying times. Very trying.

But at least, despite all their recent struggles, the Cubs are still only a single game back. For now, I guess that will have to do.

Pie Is Back
2007-08-08 11:50
by Phil Bencomo

From the Trib:

The Cubs have decided to recall Pie back from Triple-A Iowa once again, and he'll be available for Wednesday night's game against Houston ace Roy Oswalt.

UPDATE: Angel Pagan has been placed on the DL to make room for Pie.

* * * *

One reason I'm not too worried about the loss of Soriano: The Cubs went 17-9 in July, but Soriano batted just .265/.276/.425. In June, during which Soriano batted .336/.379/.697, the Cubs went 17-11.

* * * *

Outstanding matchup tonight: Carlos Zambrano vs. Roy Oswalt. Should be a good one.

Journey To The Deep
2007-08-08 11:37
by Phil Bencomo

Creeping silently through a passageway, winding slowly downwards, that seemed to grow hotter with every step, the 2007 Chicago Cubs dripped with sweat -- from the heat of their rapidly approaching destination -- but shivered with enough fear to make blood run cold. Darkness, inky as the deepest depths of space and thick as fog, filled the hall like water fills the oceans; the flashlights that hours ago ceased spewing light had been discarded miles back. There was no comfort to be found.

Time seemed to mackle. Hours faded into minutes, minutes into seconds. Light became nothing but a word and a vague memory. The 2007 Chicago Cubs trudged forward.

With a thud, the team was forced to a halt: The passageway had ended. The team searched the wall frantically for a door. A handle was found, and with the creaking of something ancient the door swung open.

A bright light pierced their eyes; the burning pain seared; men cried out. Slowly, the pain faded as eyes adjusted, and the team looked worriedly upon the waiting room. A single candle sat neatly on a simple wooden stool, yet the room, a giant cylinder, felt like a furnace. The team scanned left and right, but the room was empty save the flickering candle in the center.

"Is anybody there?" the team asked timidly as it moved into the room.


"Can we at least get a fan? Or some water? It is pretty hot..." the team said.


"Sigh ... all this way for nothing. Might as well head back." The team turned to exit -- and found only a wall, solid as rock. The door was gone.

"What the... Hey! What's going on here?! We came all this way to die, cooked alive? We want some answers!"

Still nothing.

"Well, if we're going to die, let's at least die somewhat comfortably," the team said sarcastically as it walked over to the stool and reached out to move the candle.

But the moment the team touched the candle, the flame roared, shooting up tens of feet in the air like a fountain. The team was thrown backwards, from both the force and surprise. Peering up from the hard, hot ground, the team watched in utter amazement and horror, unable to look away, as the flame morphed into the shape of a man in brilliant shades of red, orange and spurts of blue.

The room grew hotter still, and the team could find no words.

"Why have you come here and disturbed my peace?" the flame-man bellowed after what seemed like, for the team, hours of silence. His voice was steeped with rage, and the spurts of blue grew larger.

"W-w-we n-need answers and g-guidance," the team stuttered fearfully, eyes on the floor.

"HA! You must be desperate indeed to come here. Few even know of this place, and fewer still dare enter. Now, tell me: What drove you to the deepest depths of the earth and my domain?" said the flame-man, intrigued by the tired heap before him.

"W-we have lost one of our best men, and everyone is scuffling. We were doing so well... What is going wrong? What do we need to win?"

"It has been many, many years since someone last came to me, but I have waited, according to the agreement made ages ago," the flame-man said as he sat down on the edge of the stool, which did not burn. "And I am not one to go back on my word. I will give you the answers you seek, as I have always done.

"There is but one price. One of you must stay behind, to do with as I please. It is all I ask."

There was a long pause before a voice rose from the team, saying, "I vote Ronny." Murmurs of agreement filled the room, and Ronny Cedeno, with a stunned look on his face, was deposited neatly in front of the flame-man.

"You have paid the price, and so shall you receive your answers," the flame-man said. "Leave now, and when you reach the World Above you will find what it is you seek."

The door had reappeared, and the team filed out, unsure of what it would find.

* * * *

After what seemed like days, the team saw a light appear ahead -- the outside world. It grew larger with each passing step, and before long the team broke into a sprint.

Sitting at the entrance to the long, dark passageway sat a plain package. The team quickly unwrapped it, hands shaking with excitement. Small enough to fit in a hand, it was held up for all to see.

And the players gazed upon it, and in doing so, gazed upon themselves.

Eric Patterson
2007-08-07 19:15
by Phil Bencomo

Eric Patterson's first major league start:

First at-bat, second inning: The Astros' scouting report on Patterson must be pretty clear: Pitch him down and in. But with the count at 2-2, Patterson did what his brother so often could not and, with a quick flick of the wrists, put the bat on the ball. The resulting bloop single was hardly the way most rookies dream of earning their first major league hit, but many men have made long careers out of a quick bat and nimble body – Patterson could certainly do worse.

Second at-bat, third inning: Down and in didn't work, so Woody Williams went up. The result, with two men on, wasn't pretty: Patterson's first MLB swinging K.

Third at-bat, sixth inning: After two quick foul-ball strikes, Patterson managed to lay off the high heat for ball one. But a ball and two fouls later, Patterson was down on strikes again on a fastball across the letters.

In the field, sixth inning: Brad Ausmus hits a Sean Marshall pitch off the wall in left for Patterson' first play of the day.

In the field, sixth inning: As part of a double switch, Patterson is replaced by Matt Murton.

* * * *

It's awfully hard to judge any ballplayer after three at-bats, and I won't presume to have the exceptional ability to do so, or the arrogance to judge anyway. Instead, I'll say this: Patterson would do well to either (a) lay off high fastballs or (b) learn how to hit them. The first would be the wiser choice, though for any hitter high fastballs and the latter option are far more tempting. But if Patterson can replicate his first at-bat and make contact, his career will turn out alright.

2007-08-06 06:18
by Phil Bencomo

Just as one Cub made his much heralded return to action, another fell to injury. It seems all but certain that Alfonso Soriano will take Wood's well-used place on the disabled list. From the Daily Herald:

Running from first base in the third inning Sunday, Soriano rounded second on a single by Ryan Theriot but pulled up lame halfway to third and hopped to the base, where he was tagged out. He left the game, underwent an MRI and put a start to the process of figuring out what the Cubs are going to do now.

"Soriano is not going to be out there any time soon," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "It will be a minimum of two weeks and probably a month.

"He's our leadoff hitter, a valuable guy, leading our team in home runs … has a lot of energy. It's going to be a tough loss."

I expect Felix Pie will be called up, but the loss is no easier to swallow.

2007-08-03 16:30
by Phil Bencomo

Vizzini: He didn't fall!? Inconceivable!

Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

* * * *

A few months ago, I'd have told you, without the smallest shred of doubt in my mind, that a Cub playoff appearance was utterly inconceivable. A floundering bullpen and wholly inconsistent play had me resigned to another season of, at best, mediocrity. Cynical, perhaps, but at nearly ten games under .500 it gets awfully hard to find reasons to be optimistic.

But inconceivable was hardly the right word to use. Far too concrete, absolute. Improbable would have been a much better choice. And if there is one word that defines the Cubs' season, indeed, it is improbable. From worst to first, 2006 to 2007 ... it's happened so few times that, by May's end, only those drunk on the most potent Cubbie Kool-Aid truly believed, deep down, that the Cubs would take the world, and history, by storm.

But with two months to go, the Cubs have climbed not only out of their hole but also to the top of the mountain, improbably through and through.

Who could have guessed last year's fodder would be at the heart of a mid-season revival? Carlos Marmol and Sean Marshall, to name two, weren't so wonderful in 2006. And to win so frequently without the bat of Michael Barrett, viewed just a few months ago as a vital offensive cog? And with Mike Fontenot, minor-league journeyman? Kerry Wood's return can only be called improbable; in fact, so can his ability to throw at all after so many injuries. The list goes on.

Will it last? Maybe, maybe not. I certainly hope so. I suppose stranger things have happened since the dawn of man. That men can be payed millions each year to play a game, and that fans care so much about those men, does seem pretty odd, if not insignificant and futile, from a certain perspective.

But I'll revel in the good times while they last, no matter how they came about. Man is an emotional creature; sometimes too much dissection, too much objectivity, makes us something less than human. Machines don't often surprise us, but, fortunately, people do.