Harden, Johnson Stimulate Cubs To Win Over Astros, 6-3

The Cubs have now won five of their last six games, after a 6-3 win over Houston last night at the Juice Box, and they are doing it the same way they did it last year -- with long-sequence offenses (one homer last night, by Aramis Ramirez, and the rest of the runs scoring using a bases-loaded triple by Reed Johnson, and taking advantage of some shoddy Houston defense).

We are getting closer to seeing what Lou Piniella envisioned as his regular lineup. Had Derrek Lee not had to sit again with his chronic neck and back trouble, last night's lineup would have been exactly that, with Johnson and Aaron Miles getting starts against a lefthander. But because of all the injuries to various players, Miles has started 12 games in a row (and hit a not-so-great .256/.319/.349 in them). Micah Hoffpauir, Lee's replacement last night, went 1-for-4 and his average seems to have settled in the high .290's-low .300's range. This isn't terrible, and he has shown a little strike zone judgment; if, as a bench player, he can hold in the OPS range he is now (.847), he'll be useful.

Rich Harden wasn't as sharp as he could have been, but until Lance Berkman homered off him in the 8th inning, he had allowed only one run in seven full innings; this was Harden's longest outing of the year. The four strikeouts, oddly enough, were his fewest of the season (except for his start last Friday against the Marlins, when he struck out only two in 3.2 innings). The fact that starters are now going deeper into games -- that's two days in a row that a Cub starter has at least begun the 8th inning -- ought to give the bullpen a little breather. Carlos Marmol, who threw a scoreless inning last night, could use one; he has appeared in 15 of the 27 games. (Only Kiko Calero of the Marlins has been in more games thus far). Keep that up and that'd be a club-record 90 appearances, far too many, I think.

To that end, the Cubs got a fresh bullpen arm when they recalled Chad Fox from Iowa and sent Jeff Samardzija back down, presumably to return to the Iowa rotation. Lou's quote in that link is what puzzles me:
"We're pretty young out in that bullpen," Piniella said. "Having a veteran pitcher certainly helps."

Is Lou having a senior moment? Not including Samardzija, the Cubs' bullpen includes 31-year-old Kevin Gregg (who is looking much better lately and whose fifth save last night has him only three shy of the league lead), 30-year-old Aaron Heilman, 29-year-old Neal Cotts, 27-year-old Angel Guzman and 24-year-old David Patton. Three of those five -- Gregg, Heilman and Cotts -- have six years' major league experience prior to this season. I'm not sure what Lou means by "pretty young"; only Patton qualifies under that definition. What a 38-year-old Chad Fox adds that, say, Jeff Stevens couldn't have added, I have no idea.

Nevertheless, a win is a win. The Cubs will continue this road trip tonight with Ted Lilly facing Russ Ortiz (whose 5.21 ERA so far this year is his lowest since 2004). Why the schedule-makers decided to send the Cubs on two identical road trips (Houston and Milwaukee) within a month is beyond me. If you are not familiar with the Astros, you will be by June 11 -- including last night, eight of the 33 games between now and that date are against Houston, after which the Cubs will see them once at the end of July and once at the beginning of September, both at Wrigley Field. Like last year's foray with the Pirates, where the Cubs had 12 games against them by early June, this schedule appears to be in the Cubs' favor, since the Astros don't seem to be a very good team in 2009, at least from the early results.

Finally, I was out for a while last night and listening to the game in the car. It happened to be during the Judd Sirott inning. All I can say is this: Sirott makes Dave Otto sound good.

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