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Sunday, May 31, 2009
Looking 'Silky' -- in a bad way

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

Just when you think you've heard every Silky Sullivan reference, Lou Piniella comes up with another one. I know, I know, another Silky Sullivan story?

Piniella confused the usually enraptured media before Sunday night's series finale with the Los Angeles Dodgers by comparing the lagging Cubs to Silky Sullivan, a late-1950s California race horse that wowed fans by making up 28 lengths at the Santa Anita Derby in 1958, and 27 lengths in another race the year prior.

Alfonso Soriano
Alfonso Soriano hasn't driven in a run since May 17.

"If you don't know how to play ahead, it can tire you a heck of a lot," Piniella said. "I think you don't want to have to make a Silky Sullivan type run now. You all know who Silky Sullivan is? Not too many people here know Silky Sullivan."

He continued:

"But look, there's nothing wrong with letting other teams lead. It's just where you finish, remember. It's not where you're at different junctures, it's where you finish and in what position you're in by Labor Day. That's the important thing."

You can write this off as another folksy Piniella bon mot, but the comparison is actually pretty astute. You really don't want to be compared to Silky Sullivan, a 50-year-old example of misplaced hype and dashed dreams.

What Piniella, a horse racing fan from Tampa, Fla., didn't mention is that Silky Sullivan was a wildly popular favorite for the 1958 Kentucky Derby, but wound up finishing 12th of 14 horses. The Sports Illustrated cover horse might as well have been wearing Cubby Blue.

Silky's jockey, the immortal Willie Shoemaker, said he knew from the beginning of that Derby race that his horse didn't have it, that he was going to mail it in. Piniella wasn't so prescient last year, but maybe he's trying to tell us something now about his 25-24 team that is now 4½ games behind Milwaukee.

Shoemaker supposedly had this to say of the horse's racing style: "You can't do a thing with him, you just have to allow him to run his own race, at his own speed, in his own style …"

What is the Cubs' style? How can they win this race? Power? Pitching? Defense? All of the above? We're still trying to figure that out. The people who put this team together certainly expected better starts from Geovany Soto and Milton Bradley, so without them providing consistent thunder yet, and with Aramis Ramirez on the bench for the time being, it's tough to gauge the real identity of a high-priced lineup built to win high-scoring games.

Milton Bradley
Where is Milton Bradley's run production?

Despite their series split, the Cubs didn't have much luck against the Dodgers' pitching, which is quite strong. Koyie Hill and Bobby Scales homered in the first two games, nearly forgotten Reed Johnson drove in four runs over the last two games, and Mike Fontenot drove in two during the Cubs' 7-0 win Saturday. Hill, Scales, Johnson and Fontenot. Not the contributors anticipated in spring training.

The optimist in me will say it's good that different players are carrying the load. Managers are fond of saying that you win with 25 guys, not two or three.

But the pessimist in me writes much longer and he looks to a gimpy Alfonso Soriano, who hasn't driven in a run since May 17 and whose average has dropped almost 40 points. I look across the outfield to Bradley, who has driven in multiple runs in a game exactly two times this season. Then I look at the befuddling Soto -- still stuck on one home run and having trouble throwing guys out -- and I wonder if he's the real deal or another Jerome Walton. The one guy Piniella was surely counting on to stabilize the lineup, Ramirez, is on the bench nursing a shoulder injury that could trouble him far into the summer. I wonder how long the Cubs can count on Johnson and Fontenot to drive in runs and make up ground on the Brewers, Cardinals and Reds.

After his Sullivan aside, Piniella played the optimist. Here's the unfiltered version for you Cubs fans. When things get at their lowest, just think of Lou's soothing voice reassuring you:

"I think we've got probably four or five players here in the lineup that you'll see their batting average go up 30, 40 points," Piniella said, not naming the players, but I don't think he's talking about Ryan Freel. "That will dictate to me that we'll score more runs more consistently.

"I like the way our bullpen is starting to come around. You win a lot in this league with a bullpen. I like the young arms that we have out there. I'm very familiar with all of them except for [Jason] Waddell, so we really know how to use them. Our rotation is going to give us an opportunity to win baseball games almost on a daily basis.

"So to me, things are looking up. Now, does that mean that we're going to jump into first place tomorrow or the next day? Probably not. But our job basically is just to continue to play and win some baseball games, keep the teams in front of us within reach, and I think once you see us get healthy, I think you'll see a good run out of this team."

Geovany Soto
Geovany Soto is not only having troubles at the plate, but is also struggling to throw runners out.

Whew. Get all that? Piniella forgot to mention the market's going to rebound, it's street festival season in Chicago and hey, six weeks 'til Bastille Day. Plus, he said that before Sunday's national debacle on ESPN, when his team went out and got waxed 8-2.

Two years ago, Piniella waxed philosophic on Cubs fans and the media getting too high or too low with every game.

"In Chicago, people get real excited when the team is playing well and they get down when the team isn't," Piniella told reporters in Phoenix in August 2007. "We've got to find a little equilibrium somewhere."

I think the fans have made progress since then, finding some kind of stable emotional footing after consecutive playoff flops. That state of mind for Cubs Nation is best described as cautiously glum.

That line of thinking doesn't transfer to the actual Cubs, even the long-tenured ones. Athletes are trained to be forward-thinkers able to shake off losses like ugly groupies. If the Cubs have dreams of a third consecutive division title, they should be looking to reverse their poor performance away from Wrigley as they start a nine-game road trip. A long trip can be a salve to a team's ills, if they put together a few good performances like the White Sox did this past week.

"We got a tough road trip and it's an important trip," a terse Piniella said after the game. "Our last time on the road did not go well. We've got to step it up here and come back with a reasonable record."

A series win over the Dodgers would've been great fuel for the trip, but as it stands, the Cubs leave Wrigley basically unchanged from when they got here after that dreadful 0-6 trip to St. Louis and San Diego. Going 4-3 at home is nothing to brag about, not for a team with championship aspirations.

Maybe, like that old horse, the Cubs are simply a popular, fan-friendly front-runner that can't handle the big race.

Silky Sullivan. Leave it to Sweet Lou, that old railbird, to summarize a team with two words and a history lesson out of the Daily Racing Form.