La Russa holds trump Cards

CHICAGO -- Should he choose to, Tony La Russa could blow out his rotator cuff patting himself on the back. But, of course, this ain't his first rodeo.

So no matter how much satisfaction La Russa must feel these days, he does not put it on display.

"We're so far from the finish line,'' La Russa said during a triumphant two-game visit to Wrigley Field earlier this week. "All we've done is put ourselves in great position. Let's finish it off and then we can talk about what we've done. I don't want to lose our edge. We've got a nice edge. I don't want to lose it.''

Nice edge? That's putting it mildly.

After recovering from a 7-1 deficit to win 11-8 on Tuesday and sweep an emotional two-game series against the Cubs, the Cardinals had won 44 of their last 62 games. They were on a pace to win 103 games, the most in the major leagues.

All their Midwest rivals, the Cubs, can do is vent their disappointment by acting like a bunch of out-of-control hotheads.

Bathed in high expectations since their trip to the National League Championship Series a year ago, the Cubs expected their state-of-the-art starting rotation to carry them places. Instead they must deal with the reality of being 10 games behind St. Louis and in the middle of an ultra-crowded race for the NL's wild-card spot into the playoffs.

It's hard to know how much consolation they should take in getting this second chance. The two losses to St. Louis also cost them serious ground in this race, where they fell into a two-way tie for fourth place, three games behind San Francisco. They are one of seven teams within five games of first in this race.

Their chances of outlasting the NL East and West runners-up (teams like the Giants, Phillies, Braves and Marlins) are maybe one in four. That's a tough pill for Dusty Baker and his players to swallow, not to mention the legion of fatalistic fans who had suspended their skepticism to embrace 2004 as the year they would be rewarded for their suffering.

Here's how bad things are at Wrigley these days? Sammy Sosa is even getting booed.

It's been a rough month. On the night of June 23, everything seemed to be going the Cubs' way. They had just gotten Sosa back from the disabled list, had beaten the Cardinals 5-4 the night before at Busch Stadium and were leading them 9-5 in the sixth inning. A win would give them a tie for first place in the Central.

This was the night that St. Louis reliever Steve Kline gave La Russa the finger when he wasn't summoned from the bullpen. But it would be the Cubs' relievers who couldn't do their job. The Cardinals rallied to a 10-9 victory, with the winning run scoring when Kyle Farnsworth's first pitch sailed past catcher Paul Bako, who was charged with a passed ball.

It was one moment in a season of thousands of moments. It was also a turning point. Their deficit returned to two games, and four days later they were five back. That gap climbed to seven by the All-Star break and has just continued to grow as the Cubs have lost 14 of their last 23.

They're missing Sosa's replacement, the very productive Todd Hollandsworth (out since June 27 with a bruised shin), more than they missed Sosa. They went 16-14 while Sosa was out with the back injury he experienced while sneezing but are 12-15 since he returned.

While the Cubs failed to hold a six-run lead against the Cardinals on Tuesday, some saw it as a semi-encouraging day. That's because Mark Prior's tender elbow held up for 73 pitches in a simulated game, after which he was declared ready to return to the rotation Sunday in Philadelphia.

But there have been way too many days this season when the news of the day surrounding the Cubs has centered on a workout by Prior or Kerry Wood, who have combined to make only 17 of a possible 38 starts. Their health has been the subplot of the season.

The absence of Prior and Wood, the guys who carried the Cubs within one win of the World Series a year ago, has overshadowed how well the rotation has pitched without them. Thanks largely to Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement, the Cubs' starters have compiled a 3.57 ERA, the best in the majors.

The reason the Cubs aren't winning is because they aren't scoring enough runs -- 3.8 runs per game since Sosa came off the disabled list -- and because the bullpen hasn't made the runs they've scored count. The undervalued Joe Borowski, who converted 33 of 34 saves last year, has been badly missed while recovering from a partial rotator cuff tear. LaTroy Hawkins has gone 12-for-16 in save situations since replacing Borowski and Kent Mercker has been the only solid veteran in a support role.

General manager Jim Hendry, who is pondering a move to add Nomar Garciaparra or Orlando Cabrera, will almost certainly trade for a reliever or two. But now the Cubs must wait to see if Zambrano and Hawkins are suspended for their tantrums in this week's losses to the Cardinals.

Baker did not distinguish himself by defending Zambrano's fist-pumping, shouting and butt-hunting (that's where his two beanballs found Jim Edmonds) on Monday night. Zambrano's fastball hit 99 on the Wrigley gun, prompting Baker to call it the best stuff the All-Star has had in the last two seasons.

"If that's what he needs to throw like that, so be it,'' Baker said.

La Russa, usually quicker than Kline to point a finger, was in a surprisingly tranquil mood while sharing a ballpark with the imploding Cubs. Oh, Matt Morris retaliated on Tuesday, throwing a pitch a foot behind Corey Patterson, but La Russa didn't summon his righteous indignation.

Asked about the Cubs' antics, La Russa said, "We take care of the Cardinals.''

La Russa, his staff and his players are doing a wonderful job of that.

Because of a quirk in the schedule, the Cubs and Cardinals won't meet again in 2004 -- unless they should happen to play in the NLCS.

That's still possible, sure, but you probably shouldn't plan your fall around it.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.