Friday, June 20, 2008 Updated: June 21, 10:59 AM ET
These Cubs playing with unfamiliar confidence
By Wayne Drehs ESPN.com
CHICAGO -- As he rounded third base and headed for home, his game-winning home run resting comfortably in the bushes behind Wrigley Field's center-field wall, Aramis Ramirez knew the key to a safe walk-off celebration.
Protect your head.
"You don't want to take your hat off," Ramirez said. "You know everybody is going to hit you pretty hard."
And as Ramirez stomped on home and stood in the center of the blue-and-white mosh pit, his teammates did just that, slapping him on the top of the head in celebration of his bottom-of-the-ninth home run that gave the Cubs a 4-3 come-from-behind win Friday over the crosstown rival White Sox.
"We were looking for some extension there," manager Lou Piniella said of the home run. "And that's what we got."
It may be as good a time as any to check on how things are going in hell. There could be some frost issues. Not only are the best-record-in-baseball Cubs continuing to win games that most Cub teams would have found the most heartbreaking ways to lose, they've even learned how to celebrate.
Perhaps that's to be expected when, in the middle of June, you've already surpassed the number of victories (46) you had at the All-Star break the year before. Or when you're 30-8 at home, including wins in 19 of your past 21. Or when, dating back to June 3, 2007, you've won the second-most games in all of baseball.
So what if you're coming off your first three-game losing streak of the year? So what if, the night before, your previously untouchable bullpen blew a 3-1 lead in an 8-3 loss to Tampa Bay? So what if one of your best hitters, Alfonso Soriano, is out with a broken hand?
Your plane didn't arrive back in Chicago until early Friday morning? You didn't get to bed until 3 a.m.? You're facing your first-place neighbors from the South Side, who have won three straight?
Doesn't matter. At least not for these Cubs.
Aramis Ramirez raises his hand as he rounds first base after hitting the game-winning home run in the ninth inning.
"We're better," first baseman Derrek Lee said. "We have better players. We know we're a good team, we're playing with a lot of confidence, and we never believe we're out of it."
That was certainly the case Friday, when the Cubs and White Sox met for the first-ever time as first-place teams in front of 41,106 supercharged fans. While home runs by Jermaine Dye and A.J. Pierzynski gave the White Sox an early 3-1 lead, the Cubs didn't go away.
After the first inning, they failed to advance a runner to scoring position before Lee and Ramirez hit back-to-back home runs off Octavio Dotel in the seventh to tie the game at 3.
Although the leadoff hitter reached for the Sox in the eighth and ninth innings, the Cubs' bullpen kept him from reaching home. In the ninth, Cubs closer Kerry Wood coaxed Jim Thome into a pop out and Orlando Cabrera into a fly out before third-base umpire Mike DiMuro rung up A.J. Pierzynski on a third strike in which the catcher tried to check his swing.
That's when Ramirez came to the plate to lead off the bottom of the ninth, belting Linebrink's second pitch over the wall in center for the win.
"That's my job. I'm a clean-up hitter, an RBI man," Ramirez said. "People expect me to do that."
And as if that wasn't enough, as if beating the White Sox on a walk-off homer didn't please Cubs Nation plenty, there came the postgame news that Carlos Zambrano's shoulder injury doesn't appear to be nearly as serious as the team originally feared.
We have a pretty strong belief that we are going to win those types of games. It's our confidence.
--Cubs pitcher Ted Lilly
Friday's MRI arthrogram revealed a minor strain of Zambrano's right shoulder, a diagnosis that Cubs officials called "encouraging." Although a timetable for Zambrano's return won't be discussed until Saturday, the lack of structural damage in the shoulder prompted a city-wide sigh of relief that could have moved a cold front to Lake Michigan.
"That's good news," Ramirez said. "If he goes down, that would be a big loss for us."
Sure, there are 87 games still to play. Sure, the Cubs haven't even hit the halfway point of this season. But this team -- injuries permitting -- believes it will be here for the long haul. And days like Friday make it tough to argue against the Cubs.
Perhaps no scene was more telling than that of the clubhouse a few minutes after the game. There was no jumping up and down, no dancing, no faces covered in whipped cream. By the time the players had showered, dressed and prepared to head home, they acted like this whole walk-off thing was no big deal, as if they expected to win on a home run in the bottom of the ninth.
Maybe that's because they did.
"After we tied it, it was hard for me to believe we weren't going to get it done," Cubs starter Ted Lilly said. "We have a pretty strong belief that we are going to win those types of games. It's our confidence."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.