Sixty-Nine: Cubs 11, Astros 4

What, you thought that was some kind of sex reference? On this site?

Sixty-nine is, of course, the number of wins the Cubs have after today's outstanding 11-4 Cubs win over the Astros, the last of twenty games in twenty consecutive days following the All-Star break, during which the Cubs went 12-8 and increased their lead in the NL Central by half a game over the Brewers. If you check the "Best Starts Since 1900" box I've been keeping on the right sidebar for a couple of months, you'll see that only twelve Cub teams in the last 108 years have played 115 games with a better record than this year's 69-46 version.

That includes six pennant winners and the ill-fated 1969 team, which had just about reached its highest point right at about this time of the season, the first week of August. The 1908 team and the 1984 team didn't get hot till after the 115th game -- many of you probably remember the four-game sweep of the Mets at Wrigley Field in mid-August 1984, during which Keith Moreland and Ed Lynch got into a bench-clearing brawl after Lynch, then a Mets pitcher, brushed Moreland back.

The 2008 Cubs are creating their own history, of course, and today they just kept on rolling. That sounds clichéd, but it really isn't -- every day, there's a new way of winning, and new heroes, proving today once again that this is a complete team, not just one or two superstars carrying a club (although Alfonso Soriano can certainly do that, and has been leading the charge since he returned from the DL).

Today, after Jason Marquis likely got all the Marquis-haters here riled up after he allowed the Astros four runs after two were out and no one on in the third, capped by a Carlos Lee three-run jack (man, does that guy love hitting in Wrigley or what). The key at-bat in that inning was Hunter Pence drawing a walk after Marquis had him down 0-2. The Lee HR put the Astros up 4-1, and the Cubs looked a bit flat in the first two innings except for the back-to-back doubles by Jim Edmonds and Mark DeRosa that had given the Cubs a brief 1-0 lead.

They followed that top of the third with perhaps their best inning of the year -- scoring eight runs after two were out; with those two out and Ryan Theriot on with a single, Aramis Ramirez and Edmonds drew walks. Whoever posted in the pregame thread that if the Cubs waited Brandon Backe out, that would be the key to winning, had it exactly right. After those two walks, DeRo hit his fourth career grand slam, giving him five RBI for the day and 63 for the season, leaving him only eleven short of his career high set in 2006 with the Rangers. After another double by Kosuke Fukudome, the Astros intentionally walked Geovany Soto, only to have Marquis hit yet another double, driving in a run, and Soriano capped it off with his 21st homer.

Since returning from the DL, Soriano is hitting .348/.375/.697 with 6 HR and 14 RBI, and the Cubs have gone 11-4 in the 15 games.

Carrying a team? I'd say so. But again, Soriano's blow today only put the game away; the Cubs added two more in the next inning by drawing a couple more walks. They had six in all off Backe, who was clearly asked to take one for the team today; he allowed eleven earned runs and threw 99 pitches to get ten outs and his ERA went from 4.72 to 5.35.

Meanwhile, after allowing the Lee HR, Marquis settled down and allowed only two hits; the bases got loaded in the fourth on a strange ground ball where the Cubs IF didn't quite seem to know where to throw the ball -- there were two out and it seemed as if DeRosa forgot that; he could have just thrown to first but tried for a force play that failed. It didn't matter as Hunter Pence flied to center to end the inning. After that Marquis retired seven of the next eight hitters and might have had enough to finish the seventh inning had Aramis Ramirez not pulled Derrek Lee off first base on a ground ball by probably the slowest player on the field, Humberto Quintero. When Marquis left in favor of Sean Marshall he got probably the warmest applause he's had in his year and two-thirds as a Cub.

Say what you want about Marquis -- he does exactly what he's asked to do, eat up innings and keep his team in the game. He has now thrown at least six innings in nine of his last ten starts, and that probably makes him the best fifth starter in the league. That's a bold statement and I don't have time to make statistical comparisons with other NL fifth starters, so if anyone here wants to do that, go right ahead.

Today, BCB reader Rudey was the one who emailed me first and bought my extra tickets. Nice to meet you and hope you enjoyed the game.

The Brewers beat the Reds this afternoon so the Cubs' lead in the Central stays at five games; the Cardinals will play the Dodgers tonight and tomorrow afternoon and after last night's rain-delayed, extra-inning game in St. Louis, the best thing we can hope for is two more games just like that one, so that the Cardinals arrive in Chicago for Friday's game exhausted, while the Cubs enjoy their well-earned off day tomorrow.

You enjoy it too. Onward in this remarkable, wonderful season.

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