I happened to be in the car at the end of last night's game, and honestly, I'm lucky I didn't drive right off the road when Daryle Ward smashed his game-winning, pinch-hit, three-run homer off Kevin Gregg, giving the Cubs yet another thrilling win, 6-5 over the Marlins, their 35th come-from-behind victory (tied with the Tigers and Brewers for most in baseball), ninth consecutive road win (bringing them, at last, back to .500 on the road -- a place where only four other teams, the Phillies, Cardinals, Brewers and Angels reside), and fifth straight overall. It was done in front of a raucous Cub-centric crowd of 28,163, nearly twice the Marlins' season average of 16,130 (by far the worst in the majors), and Cub fans there came across loud and clear both on radio and TV.
Pat Hughes doesn't often get real emotional on the air, but it was easy to hear the genuine surprise and excitement in his voice in calling the no-doubt-about-it HR; it landed just about where I was sitting for games three and four of the 2003 NLCS, both Cub victories. Can you imagine how Ron Santo would have reacted if he had been in the booth last night? Dave Otto -- well, he's kind of the goofy little brother who you sort of tolerate because he's on your side, but he just didn't seem to understand that this kind of thing just hasn't happened for the Cubs, not for many years, maybe not ever.
Daryle Ward? I mean, come on. Most of us have either criticized Ward all year because he simply hasn't produced as a pinch hitter or said, "Well, he'll come along because he's done it before"... and darned if he didn't do it exactly when his team needed him most. Some quotes from Ward that show that he absolutely, positively understands what his job is and how he hasn't been doing it:
"I knew [Gregg] was going to come after me," Ward said. "He's a closer, and has a good fastball. I took the first one, and I was kind of thinking that was it. It was right down the middle. I did it again, and took a fastball right down the middle. Now, I'm going to have to really battle, and I picked up the release spot early, and saw it was another fastball and took a good hack and connected, and it felt great."
He had shortened his swing Thursday when he hit a sacrifice fly against the Atlanta Braves, and took that into his at-bat on Friday. Ward has been trying to get out of his funk. The home run was his first hit after an 0-for-13 skid, and when you're primarily a pinch-hitter, it's a long time between at-bats.
"Right there, I'm just trying to make good contact and I crushed the ball," Ward said. "It takes me time to adjust sometimes, and when you pinch-hit, you get one at-bat, it might take a week and it seems like forever. I was so excited."
Yeah, he stood and watched it. A bit. I guess most hitters do that these days. Should I say "It had better not happen again"? Not this time. We're too happy this morning.
It didn't start out that way. The Cubs took a brief 1-0 lead when Carlos Zambrano drove in a run with a single; Z has now hit in 11 consecutive games in which he's started (he did have a pinch-hitting appearance on July 10), and overall has hit in 17 of the 23 games he's started. He's hitting .362 in 69 at-bats, by far his best offensive season.
It's becoming, however, an eerie replay of last year when all of us -- and apparently the coaching staff can see it too -- could see that Z's arm slot is off kilter. He's almost sidearming the ball and it's resulting in more walks, five of them last night, four of them scoring, three of those on Jorge Cantu's homer in the third that gave Florida a 4-1 lead. It was 5-1 when Mark DeRosa's career-high 14th homer cut the lead to 5-3... and there it stayed, thanks in part to outstanding relief work from Chad Gaudin (two hitless innings) until Ward's heroics in the 9th. Kerry Wood made it interesting by allowing a walk and hitting Cantu before striking out Alfredo Amezaga to end it. Wood, unlike some closers who do elaborate dances on the mound when they're finished, stepped off the mound almost in relief, drenched in sweat (it must have been really humid there last night -- when I saw the schedule for this year, I thought "Miami in August? Ugh."). It was his 25th save, and first since his return from the DL. Despite Wood's extended absence, he's now tied for 7th in the league (with Brandon Lyon), one behind Kevin Gregg, who had his seventh blown save last night.
But I worry about Z. He's throwing like he did last August when he had a 7.06 ERA and I thought it wasn't too smart, in a year when he spent some time on the DL, to leave him out there in the sticky conditions to throw 119 pitches. He's got to sit down and look at video or whatever he does to get his mechanics right again. Lou has switched the rotation around so that everyone gets enough rest, after Sean Marshall starts tonight:
Right-hander Jason Marquis will be available out of the bullpen tonight, according to Lou Piniella.
The Cubs will bypass Marquis during the upcoming series against Cincinnati at Wrigley Field. Instead, they'll start Marquis next Friday at home against Washington.
Lou Piniella had toyed with bringing Marquis back on three days rest to pitch Sunday. Instead, Marquis will have to wait a whole lot longer, as the Cubs go with Rich Harden, Ted Lilly and Carlos Zambrano next Tuesday-Thursday against the Reds.
And thank heavens, the Cubs got the Florida monkey off their back, recording a win in the state (didn't win in Tampa either this year) for the first time since July 10, 2005. More good news -- the Dodgers helped the Cubs -- and themselves -- out with a 5-3 win over Milwaukee, increasing the Cubs' lead to 5.5 games with forty games to go.
Every day, a new hero. Every day, more excitement. I've said this so many times, but once again, it bears repeating: savor every one of these, remember where you were, what you were doing, who you were with... because you'll want to press these into your memories forever. Onward to tonight.