Friday, August 31, 2007
Cubs have the look of winners
By Jayson Stark
CHICAGO -- If you're a student of history, billy goats and guys named Bartman, you know there are certain words you should always be wary of using in the same sentence as the term Cubs season.
Magical comes to mind.
Or enchanted, perhaps ... mystical, maybe ... special, possibly.
Aw, you get the idea. At this point in Cubs history, it probably ought to be illegal in all 50 states to use any form of adjective that suggests this is one of those Cubs teams that just might be The One. The goat buster. The curse crusher. The Bartman obliterator.
We've got 99 years worth of evidence that tells us that even hinting at that kind of thing is a really, really bad and dangerous idea.
Nevertheless, we want to be the first to warn you. This is starting to look like one of those seasons where ordinary humans -- people who love deep dish and worship ivy -- are going to start dreaming Those Dreams any day now.
Maybe even today, in fact, because the Cubs -- yes, friends, the Cubs -- are taking on that look. That this-is-the-year kind of look.
The stuff that went on in their 5-4 win Thursday over the fading Brewers wasn't exactly spooky. There was no gloaming, no roamin', no Merkles, no thunderbolts from the heavens.
But still, stuff happened. Stuff that made this game just a little eerie, that made another Cubs comeback just a little more possible, that enabled them to put the rest of the NL Central just a little deeper in their rearview mirrors.
Check those standings, and here's what you'll find: The Cubs lead their division now by 2½ games. It's their largest lead at any point of any season in 51 long months, since Memorial Day weekend, 2003.
Granted, 2½ isn't 12½. It isn't safe. It isn't cushy. But "it's better," laughed first baseman Derrek Lee, "than the other way around."
But that lead doesn't tell you all there is to know about this team and the way it's trending. To get that picture, we need to look at this club's last 79 games -- nearly three months and nearly half a season's work.
Since June 3, the day that stretch began, the Cubs have the best record in the National League (46-33). In fact, they have a better record since June 3 than any team in baseball except the Yankees (who are an even scarier 52-29).
If the season had started that day, the Cubs wouldn't lead the Brewers by only 2½ games. They'd lead by 10 games. And all this euphoria that is starting to build around this scene now would be easier for the rest of the planet to comprehend.
"I'll tell you," said closer Ryan Dempster, after tightroping his way through a harrowing 1-2-7 ninth inning. "That's probably as much fun as I've ever had at a baseball game. When I went to two and two on Corey Hart [with two outs in the ninth], that's probably the loudest sound I've ever heard in my life."
Could be. It made O'Hare sound like Walden Pond, if that's any indication. And the man talking about all that "fun" he'd just had was a guy who had almost let a semi-miraculous victory slip away, too.
Loaded the bases. Walked in one run. Had the winning run in scoring position, right over his shoulder. And barely did escape. Then he somehow managed to call it "as much fun as I've ever had at a baseball game?" Huh? What the heck?
"Hey, that's what you play baseball for, man," Dempster said. "When you're 12 years old, on the Little League field, when you have the bases loaded, that's the situation you dream of.
"That's what it's all about. That's fun. That's baseball. It was a little bit more intense than I probably wanted it to be, I guess. And a little bit more suspenseful. Ron Santo was probably having a heart attack somewhere."
Yeah, but these are the best kind of heart attacks the Ron Santos of Cubs Nation could possibly have. If it's nearly September and the average Wrigley Field pulse rate is about 389 beats a minute, that's a good thing.
Once, of course, it didn't look as if that's where this Cubs season was heading. You might remember that.
Once, they were nine games under .500 (22-31). Once, they were 7½ games out of first place. Once, they were 2-12 for the season in one-run games. Once, their new manager, good old Lou Piniella, was spitting fire, terrorizing umpires and terrifying his new players pretty much daily.
|Joy has returned to Wrigley now that the Cubs are in the middle of a pennant race.|
Those days seem like some other century now, though. These Cubbies have gotten to know Sweet Lou, and he has gotten to know them. The bullpen has stabilized. The rotation is steady. The ace (Carlos Zambrano) is finally signed. And the wins just keep on coming.
"To be honest, I don't know where we were in June," Piniella said Thursday. "We were behind in the standings. I know that. But we've worked hard to get to this point. And now we've got to keep working just as hard to maintain it -- or harder."
Or they could just keep having things go inexplicably right -- sort of in the way they went inexplicably right Thursday night.
It didn't look like a real promising sign, for instance, that their starting pitcher, Ted Lilly, gave up a home run to Rickie Weeks on the fourth pitch he threw, and then huffed and puffed through a 38-pitch first inning that ended with the Brewers ahead 2-0.
But one inning later, That Stuff started happening. Brewers right fielder Corey Hart was just about to settle under a routine Craig Monroe fly ball -- when it disappeared into the lights, whooshed by his shoulder and kicked off a three-run Cubs rally.
"How often do you see that?" Dempster wondered. "Maybe twice a year?"
But there was more. An inning after that, after the Brewers had tied the game at three, their starting pitcher, future star Manny Parra, bruised his thumb trying to lay down a bunt. So out went Parra and in marched Chris Capuano.
Not that that guaranteed the Cubs any postgame high-fiving or anything. But the previous 17 times Capuano had appeared in a ballgame, the Brewers' record was (gulp) 0-17.
Meanwhile, Lilly was on the way to throwing about a thousand pitches (OK, make that 107) in five innings. So he had to exit a little earlier than normal himself. But not to worry. Little did we know that exit would merely inspire Piniella to make The Greatest Double Switch in Cubs History.
That double switch involved reliever Carlos Marmol and outfielder Matt Murton. And here's how well that worked out:
Murton -- who hadn't hit a home run at Wrigley Field all season -- promptly mashed a 3-2 Capuano changeup over the ivy to put the Cubs ahead to stay. And that blast was followed, two pitches later, by Alfonso Soriano's first homer since July, which put the Cubs even further ahead.
Oh, by the way, did we mention that the Cubs were last in the league in home runs this month before those back-to-backers busted out? And the wind was howling straight in? So go ahead, all you Cubs skeptics out there. Explain that.
"That," Murton said afterward, "was awesome."
Meanwhile, Marmol wasn't too shabby himself -- punching out five Brewers in two spectacular shutout innings. So when Dempster was asked later if he was mentoring Marmol on how to be a closer some day, the current closer quipped: "No, he's mentoring me."
But this is life in Wrigley, 2007 -- an avalanche that gains a little more steam daily.
"These are moments," Dempster said, "that didn't happen last year. And they weren't happening earlier this year, either."
But they're happening now, all right. On a quasi-regular basis.
"The high fives are harder," Dempster reported. "And the smiles are bigger. And rightfully so."
Yeah, it hasn't been often, over the last century or so, that there was this much reason to smile around Wrigley as September approached. But it's getting to be one of those years, friends -- a year where these Cubs have one of those rarified opportunities to render that previous century obsolete.
We shudder when we say that, naturally. We understand the dangers. We've studied our history books. We've witnessed that Bartman game live and in person.
But we also think that even Cubs fans should be allowed to dream. So we're authorizing those dreams, right here, right now. And if they don't work out, you won't have to arrest us. We promise.
We'll turn ourselves in -- to the nearest billy goat.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.
To be honest, I don't know where we were in June. We were behind in the standings. I know that. But we've worked hard to get to this point. And now we've got to keep working just as hard to maintain it -- or harder.
--Cubs manager Lou Piniella