In a season filled with superlatives, Rich Harden almost gave the Cubs a memory to savor forever. On the 39th anniversary of Kenny Holtzman's no-hitter vs. the Braves at Wrigley Field, Harden had good enough stuff to throw one -- mowing the Reds down easily, retiring the first ten batters he faced before Jeff Keppinger lined a single to center to break up any mid-game thoughts of perfection.
Harden finished with two hits allowed and ten strikeouts in seven outstanding innings, and the Cubs dispatched the Reds efficiently 5-0, increasing their division lead to its largest of the season, six games, when the Brewers lost to the Astros in Milwaukee last night.
Harden, who told Lou he'd rather throw at night in cooler conditions -- presumably he's used to that from growing up in British Columbia and pitching in Oakland -- was pushed back to this series from the humidity in Florida, and got his wish. It was Septembrish-cool at Wrigley last night, with the wind blowing in and the ball not carrying at all. And Harden's 94 pitches averaged just over four pitches per batter (comparison point: he threw 92 pitches in five innings in Atlanta, 94 in seven last night). It was the second time in his seven Cub starts that he walked no one, and the fourth time he struck out ten. The only other hit off Harden was a sixth-inning single by Reds rookie Chris Dickerson (it's weird seeing the Reds without Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. -- those two had been Reds teammates for nearly seven years), and Kerry Wood allowed one more single in a non-save situation in the 9th.
Meanwhile, the Reds' Johnny Cueto was also throwing a nice game, thanks in part to some really questionable baserunning by Cubs. In the third, Mark DeRosa led off with a double. Harden failed to advance him via bunt, and then, inexplicably, DeRosa got caught off second base on a routine ground ball to short. Alfonso Soriano was safe on that grounder, but he promptly got picked off, his second pick in as many games. Two innings later, Harden made up for his poor third-inning bunt by laying down an excellent safety squeeze following a Geovany Soto triple and walk to Kosuke Fukudome. Soto waited till Reds 3B Edwin Encarnacion committed to throwing to first, then broke for the plate and scored when Joey Votto's throw home was off line, giving the Cubs a 1-0 lead.
With Harden, Wood and Carlos Marmol, who threw the 8th (and probably could have thrown the 9th, too, getting out of the 8th with only 11 pitches), throwing as well as they were, one run would have been enough; but the Cubs tacked on four more in the 8th after Cueto was pulled for a pinch-hitter. Dusty Baker did something so familiar to all of us, yanking reliever after reliever, playing "the book" in switching off pitchers for supposed platoon advantage, yet none of it worked. The two biggest blows in the inning were a rocket double down the line by Aramis Ramirez, and then after an intentional pass to Soto, Fukudome singled in the final two runs.
When Marmol was facing Corey Patterson, I said to Mike, "This is one of the biggest pitcher-batter mismatches you'll see all year." Mike, who waited years before he caught a HR in the bleachers, got his first in 2004, a Patterson shot in the 12th inning of this game on September 7, said that Patterson would probably prove me wrong by hitting one. Wrong, at least in this miserable year for Patterson -- Marmol struck him out on a nasty slider.
For Harden's part, I'm happy to say that those who wanted him here were right -- he appears to be keeping healthy, and some of the reasons can be found in Gordon Wittenmyer's article in today's Sun-Times. The Cub staff is doing everything right, I think, in managing Harden's workload and preparation so he stays that way.
The Cubs are 29 games over .500. The next milestone is 32 games over .500, last reached on September 2, 1969 -- that's the most games over .500 since 1945. Yes, it has been a long litany of failure. But this year is erasing many numbers from the past. May it continue deep into October.
Click on photos to open a larger version in a new browser window. All photos by David Sameshima. More photos of last night's game by BCB reader Damen Jackson can be found here.