THIRTY-SIX STEPS FROM WRIGLEY FIELD -- I'm sitting in my friend Jim's apartment, on Waveland across from the left field bleachers, thanks to his offer to let me use his office to post this recap while attending a party at his place, watching everyone quietly file out of Wrigley Field after today's 5-3 Cub loss to the Phillies, the first time they've lost two in a row since they lost a pair to the Marlins at the end of July, also at home.
Feels strange and odd, doesn't it? Making matters worse, Carlos Zambrano was scratched from today's start with a "tired arm", and that may be all that's wrong, and we hope so. Z will now go Tuesday or Wednesday against the Astros, with Jason Marquis starting tomorrow and Ryan Dempster throwing the game that Z doesn't.
There was no energy in the ballpark from the first inning -- after Sean Marshall gave up three runs, all after two were out, putting the Cubs in a hole they couldn't come out of, even after they themselves scored two runs and had the tying run on third base with only one out in the second inning. The team had no energy and despite one of the largest crowds of the year, 41,544, the stands had none either. When the Phillies extended the lead to 4-2 on Jayson Werth's HR in the 5th and 5-2 in the sixth, a near-silence pervaded the yard, which began to empty out after the obligatory seventh-inning stretch singing (which I haven't heard when the Cubs trailed after that inning in months, since I've been performing the "go to the men's room ritual" at that time. Didn't work today, or yesterday, either). Despite having the tying runs on base again in the 8th, nothing came across after Henry Blanco had cut the lead to 5-3 with an RBI single. Brad Lidge, who hasn't blown a save all year, converted his 33rd when the impatient middle of the order only made him throw eight pitches to record a flyout (Reed Johnson, and why wasn't Jim Edmonds batting for him?), popup on the first pitch (D-Lee), and, no magic today from A-Ram, who struck out to end this game that seemed to go on forever (an hour and ten minutes to play three innings and 3:04 for all nine) in today's brilliant sunshine. Lou ran out of position players, except for Edmonds, and was forced to play Mark DeRosa at SS in the 9th for the first time this year, and naturally, the very first batted fair ball in that inning was hit to him. He fielded it flawlessly, but don't think that means he could play the position every day.
I thought this afternoon of the 1984 Cubs, who at just about this same point in the season had reached 90-58, 32 games over .500 -- their peak, extending a lead that reached to 9.5 games -- and then lost five in a row, three of them to a bad Pirates team, and looked horrid doing it. The fifth of those losses was 8-0 to the Cardinals in St. Louis, and though the lead was still 6.5 games, we worried, those of us who were in St. Louis that weekend, because the next day was rained out, forcing a doubleheader on Sunday, and as you know, those can always cause trouble.
The Cubs swept that one, clinching a tie for the division title, and moved on to win the NL East the next day in Pittsburgh. Now, there is more time left in this season -- 25 games -- than there was then -- one week -- and the Cubs have a more formidable challenger now, the Brewers, who also seem to never lose. However, Milwaukee comes home to play the Mets, in first place and a better team than the Pirates, who have been fodder for both the Cubs and Brewers this season, and the Cubs will face the Astros, who have played well lately. Are there cracks in the armor? Will Z just be pushed back a couple of days? I know Lou and the staff want to be very careful with both Z and Rich Harden, and justifiably so. There will be reinforcements in the bullpen available tomorrow.
Looking across the street again, the ballpark's nearly empty now, except for the cleanup crews; there are a few stragglers wandering Waveland and the vendors hawking their T-shirts. The fading summer sun is descending through the southwest-facing window, reminding us that autumn is close at hand. See you in September. Fasten your seatbelts. We're in for a heck of a two-month ride.