The Zeephus Pitch

That's what Mike termed Carlos Zambrano's two-strike floater that hit Brandon Phillips in the top of the seventh inning.

(If you don't know what an "Eephus Pitch" is, Wikipedia has a pretty good description. Yes, I know Z wasn't trying to throw that, but it sure came out that way.)

Turned out, one out later, that was the difference in the game, when Scott Hatteberg singled Phillips, who stole second off Jason Kendall, in with the Reds' sixth run. Despite a Cubs comeback, Mike Fontenot's drive to the wall in right -- which nearly everyone in the park thought was gone off the bat, and would have been gone had the early-game breeze continued -- was caught at the ivy by Norris Hopper, ten feet away from being a walkoff HR, and just like that the game was over, a 6-5 loss to the Reds.

Frustrating? Yes. But in this quirky season, it may not matter, in the long run -- as the Brewers' loss to the Cardinals, 12-4 last night, kept the Cubs only 1.5 games behind Milwaukee.

Yes, I am well aware that the 56-60 Cardinals are now only three games behind the Cubs. More on this later.

Did I say this season is quirky? It's far more than that. The Dodgers, who led Arizona by 1.5 games on July 26, have lost 13 of 16 and now trail the D'backs by 6.5 games. Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks, who have the best record in the league, lost 15-4 last night and have a negative run differential. And not just a run or two, either -- they have now allowed thirty more runs than they have scored, giving them a Pythagorean record projection of 57-63, ten games worse than their actual record. In general, things like this will tell you that the D'backs can't sustain what they are doing for too long.

The Brewers' loss last night also gives them a -5 run differential and a Pythagorean record of 59-60, while the Cubs' is 63-55 -- thus, if things were going "by the numbers", the Cubs should be 4.5 games in first place. (The Cardinals are even worse -- their Pythagorean record is 51-65, five games below their not-so-great W-L mark.)

Pythagoras doesn't play baseball, though: people do. At some point this sort of thing ought to be evening out. But we've been saying this most of the season and it hasn't happened yet. Does this mean the champion of the Comedy Central is going to have a losing record? Possible, I suppose. In the meantime the Cubs are going to have to start scoring runs by means other than solo HR -- of which they had three yesterday, including perhaps the longest of the year, a monstrous bomb onto Sheffield by Jacque Jones, who broke a tie with those other noted sluggers, Fontenot and Ryan Theriot, with his fourth of the year (the LSU duo each have three). It was nice to see Derrek Lee homer -- maybe, with Lou Piniella and Gerald Perry helping him figure out a flaw in his batting stance, he's going to bust out soon. Also nice was the return of Aramis Ramirez to the lineup; he made a couple of nice plays in the field and slammed a HR himself.

It wasn't enough, since Z was off his game -- giving up an alarming 13 hits, and having no strikeouts for the first time since the Michael Barrett meltdown game on June 1. (Those are, in fact, the only two games in which Z has failed to record a K since he joined the starting rotation on July 1, 2002.)

A razzberry to Carlos Marmol for giving up singles to the first three batters he faced in relief of Z, loading the bases. Big applause to Marmol for then striking out Jeff Keppinger looking, Ken Griffey Jr. swinging (on an absolutely filthy slider), and getting Brandon Phillips to fly to right, keeping the game close.

And I guess you have to give credit to Aaron Harang, who is, after all, one of the top starters in the league -- he kept the Cubs off-balance, apart from the HR, most of the evening, and they just couldn't get much other offense going. I know that Jim Hendry is still, even halfway through August, out there looking for a hitter. Perhaps former Cub Matt Stairs, who can still hit (.291/.363/.545 with 14 HR in 244 AB) and can still play the OF (all but two of his starts this year have been in the field) could be on the radar. (Not only that, but Stairs, from everything I've heard, is a great clubhouse guy.)

I've been someone who's said that the Cubs shouldn't make a move just to say they've done so, but they sure could have used Russell Branyan (who hit a pinch-hit, game-winning 2-run HR for the Phillies last night -- and they got him for virtually nothing from Cleveland), or Jose Cruz, who's still available. Jake Fox was recalled last night -- but not used. What's the point of having these kids on the roster if they're not going to play? Go out and get someone who's either going to start, or who's used to coming off the bench, which most players coming through the Cub farm system aren't.

Odd sights seen last night: several teenage boys and girls painting each other's chests (yes, the girls stayed in PG-13 mode) blue, with Cub numbers on their backs, including Alfonso Soriano's #12 (and the Cubs are now 2-7 since he's been hurt, including the game in which he was hurt -- I wouldn't have expected his loss to be that significant, but maybe it is). And a few other people sitting near the "blue kids", several rows beneath us, attempted to start a wave and were loudly shouted down by others in our section.

Oh, yes. The Cardinals. In 1969, a year after the Cardinals had won back-to-back pennants, they were languishing in third place in late July, 11.5 games behind the then-high-flying Cubs. They went on a mini-tear, winning sixteen of nineteen, and Harry Caray, then the Cardinals' lead radio broadcaster (yes, that's right, for those of you too young to remember, we Cubs fans of a certain age grew up knowing Harry as "the enemy" before he became beloved), would end every Cardinals' win by taunting Cubs fans: "The Cardinals are coming, tra la, tra la."

Well, as it turned out, they weren't: St. Louis never got closer than eight games out. It was another team the Cubs had to worry about in 1969, and of that, I think it best to say no more.

And in 2007, the Cubs are the team doing the chasing rather than the team being chased. It's almost imperative to win five of the six remaining games on this homestand. And tonight's weather forecast looks iffy, and at least one advance forecast has the temperature by Saturday no higher than 70.

There's a taste of fall on the way. If the Cubs want to taste baseball this fall, they'd better step up. Now.

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