Coming out of the All Star break, the Chicago Cubs have put together a very impressive two weeks of baseball, compiling a very impressive record of 11-3. I know what you are saying about this stretch of game though. They played half of those games against some of the worst talent the National League has to offer. The Washington Nationals are the worst team in all of baseball, and the Cincinnati Reds aren’t all that much better. That being the case, the Cubs did exactly what they are supposed to do. Play the teams that are on your schedule, and beat the teams that you are supposed to beat. The Cubs did just that, winning all seven games against the two lowly teams.
With the Philadelphia Phillies was the series to look at. They are one of the best teams in the National League, and we knew they would give us a fight going into that series. How many people honestly thought we would sweep the Phillies, let alone win the series? Going into things, I thought that we would be lucky to win one game. This was a very interesting series when you look back at what happened. The Cubs got blown out in the opener, lost an extra inning battle for the second, and blew them out in the final. If you want a comparison, the St. Louis Cardinals blew out the Phillies in the first game of their recent series, but got blown out themselves in the final two.
Finally, that brings me to the Houston Astros, who while they are a better team then the other two, they are a far cry from a great team. However, by winning the series against the Astros, they added some much needed separation between them and a team that was, until recently, tied with the Cubs for second place. They won three of the four games, and now are a healthy four games ahead of the closest team behind them. A four game series is hard to sweep, so I figured we would lose at least one game. I thought that Roy Oswalt was going to be the one pitcher who would beat us. When he went down in the second inning, my hopes were raised that the Cubs would be able to sweep the series. However, our pitching staff had a one game implosion. We lost the game I figured we would lose, so no harm done. The Cubs still won three of the four games. What else could you expect?
Despite the teams the Cubs played, the offensive output has been very impressive. The most impressive would have to be the red hot Alfonso Soriano who is on fire in his new role as the Cubs six hole hitter. He has really adapted well, and has even stated that he feels he can be of more use to the team in his current spot when he admitted a three run bomb in a game, is a lot better then a leadoff homerun. Truer words have never been spoken. The offensive explosion might also have to do with the return of Aramis Ramirez. While he started off slowly when he finally came back, since the break ended he has looked like he has returned to for. He has once again looked like the RBI machine that we have all come to know and love since he came to Chicago.
One thing that may stand in the way of the Cubs going deep into October are the injuries. The Cubs just can not stay healthy this year. Every time the Cubs are about to reactivate a player from the disabled list, someone else gets injured and has to be put on. This has been the case all season long, as the Cubs have had their whole team healthy for a total of two games this season. Currently, the Cubs have five players on the disabled list. They are, Aaron Miles, David Patton, Ted Lilly, Geovany Soto and now Reed Johnson. In all honesty though, only three of them are important to the Cubs long term success.
Thankfully, Soto is close to returning from his oblique injury, and could be back over the weekend, or by early next week at the latest. No offense to Koyie Hill, but Soto is a much better offensive player. I give him all the props in the world though, he has caught almost every inning of every game since Soto went down, but we need Soto back in a bad way. With Lilly, who knows when he will be back. He is having arthroscopic surgery on his knee, and that recovery takes around three weeks to heal. Hopefully, that time off will allow the inflammation in his shoulder to die down. With his status being unknown, the Cubs made a trade which brings them back a pair of lefty pitchers. More on this in a moment. The final Cub on the disabled list, which we need is Johnson. He broke his foot when he fouled off a ball in the first inning of Wednesday’s game. He will be out for around a month at least.
The only good thing I can say about the team having all these injuries, is that for the most part, the entire team will be relatively well rested come September and October. Just about every member of the team has spent time on the shelf, whether they were on the disabled list or just missing a week due to a nagging injury. I think that the Cubs being where they are considering all the injuries they have had, is a miracle. Take this as a statement of how bad our division is, that or how good of a job Cubs Jim Hendry did in building this team to be as deep as they are. He has been ripped without remorse for some of the moves he has made, but considering how banged up we have been, they have been able to do a pretty decent job at filling the holes we have been left with.
As I mentioned, today the Cubs made a trade with their usual favorite trading partners, the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the trade, the Cubs acquired a pair of left handed pitchers, John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny. In return, the Cubs sent out today’s winning pitcher Kevin Hart along with minor leaguers Jose Ascanio and Single-A Daytona infielder Josh Harrison. In my honest opinion, this is a good trade for our beloved Cubs. They were able to get another left handed pitcher to add into the bullpen to go along with Sean Marshall in Grabow. With Gorzelanny, he could very well slide into the starting rotation in Lilly’s slot until he is able to return, if he is able to do so at all this year. Marshall, I feel, will stay in the bullpen as he has had a tremendous amount of success since being moved into that role, 1.25 ERA in 25 games. Apparently he is much more comfortable pitching in relief then as a starter, where many Cub fans wanted him to stay when Carlos Zambrano returned from his injury. However, after Randy Wells has been outstanding in his stint with the Cubs, Marshall as sent back to his common role in the bullpen. Time will tell if these trades will have the desired effect, so I will not judge them fully until they have had some time to get work in. By give them some time, I mean more then just a game or two.
Well, the Cubs have 62 games left this season, and are currently in a first place tie with the Cardinals, though that tie will be broken by the end of the night one way or another. Tomorrow, the Cubs hit the road, and start the trip in Florida to face the Marlins. They get to face another one of the softer teams in the National League, and should be able to continue padding their stats, and hope that they are able to get some separation with the Cardinals to not only get into first place on their own, but get a comfortable lead with the season dwindling down. They will be on the road until August 10, and will face the Marlins, Reds and the Colorado Rockies. While the old saying goes, you need to play .500 on the road, on this 10 game trip, anything less then six or seven wins would be a disappointment. The Pennant race is getting exciting as the final two months are about to begin.
The rollercoaster ride that the Chicago Cubs have been taking their fans on this entire season continues. After things have looked their bleakest, the Cubs won three of four games from the team which at the time lead the division, the Milwaukee Brewers, and did so in dominant fashion in two of them. With as critical as I have been with this team over the past few weeks, the only fair and just thing to do would be to also give them the praise that they deserve. With the way the ball club has played over the last week, they have earned a pat on the back.
I will freely admit, that a week ago, I thought that this team was going to go nowhere fast. With the way the offense had been struggling, I was under the impression that, despite the three games with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the four game series with the division leading Brewers would be the final blow, knocking us out of contention. But something happened, the Cubs found new life. Mixed with a collection of players from Triple A, the Cubs started playing far better then they had been at any other time in the season. Counting last nights win against the Atlanta Braves, the Cubs have won six of their last eight games, and now sit in third place, only two games back of the new division leading St. Louis Cardinals. Perhaps this new life that the Cubs have seemingly found is only temporary, but seeing them play baseball as well as they have this past week is great.
Yesterday, the Cubs got back three important players who they have been missing. Aramis Ramirez, Angel Guzman and Reed Johnson were all activated from the disabled list. With them returning to the ball club, three had to go, Kevin Hart and Sam Fuld were optioned back to the minor leagues, while the Rule 5 draft pick David Patton was placed on the disabled list with what the Cubs called a “strained groin”. I doubt he is actually injured, but his going on the disabled list is a convenient excuse to keep him off the roster while keeping him as a part of the active roster so they could hold on to his rights.
While niether Johnson nor Guzman got into the game yesterday, Ramirez started and went hitless. While getting these stars back on the roster is huge, you can not discredit what some of the current Cubs have been doing, The Cubs hottest hitter, Derrek Lee, is smashing the ball as if he is reliving his 2005 campaign. Additionally, with the recent lineup changes Cubs Manager Lou Piniella has made, Kosuke Fukudome has found new life as the teams new leadoff hitter. With Fukudome leading off, Alfonso Soriano has been lowered down to sixth in the order. This is a move that has been a long time coming, and you have to wonder why this wasn’t done sooner. Fukudome looks to be a perfect fit leading off games, as his patience helps work the count in a way we haven’t seen out of Soriano. However, he will not be leading off games when there is a lefty on the mound, that honor will go to Johnson who shares a platoon with Fukudome in Center Field.
However, news today is saddening, as the Cubs will be placing starting pitcher Ryan Dempster on the disabled list with a broken toe. Starting on three days rest, Carlos Zambrano will take the ball in Dempster’s absence. Coming off of his most impressive start of the year, you would think that I would have nothing but confidence in him starting tonight’s game against a team which is not as good as the Brewers. I am not too fond of any pitcher going on short rest, let alone Zambrano who is as lose of a cannon as they come. Being on short rest he is more liable to make a mistake, and we all know that when he makes a mistake he gets made at himself and makes more mistakes. Hopefully tonight, he will be able to avoid making any costly mistakes. Taking Dempster’s place on the 25 man roster will be recently demoted Hart who will likely resume his roll in the bullpen with Shawn Marshall once again joining the rotation. Though that is, of course, just a guess.
With the Cubs riding high on their recent stretch of success, you have to hope that they will continue. With one test down, they have one final test before the All Star break beings. The Cubs will be playing the Cardinals in a four game series that leads into the break. A series win could see the Cubs enter the break in first place, a spot that seemed to be light years away. While this rollercoaster ride of a season can once again see the Cubs enter another low point, the future has never looked brighter then after winning the series over the Brewers. If they are able to finish the first half strong, the second half of the season could be one to remember.