My friend Mike has always said, when unexpected or unusual things happen in baseball, "Anyone who tells you they have this game figured out, laugh in their face!"
That phrase is certainly true this afternoon. After Rich Harden had thrown poorly in day games -- and at Wrigley Field in general this year -- who figured he could throw six innings and allow only one hit, only one baserunner? That hit was a home run by Cub-killer Joey Votto, but that's all Harden gave up -- he was outstanding today, striking out eight in six excellent innings, throwing only 90 pitches (61 strikes).
Hypothetical question: let's say Votto doesn't hit that home run and Harden throws six perfect innings. Do you let him continue? (I say emphatically, yes.)
In any case, the offense also produced today and the 5-2 win over the Reds, combined with the Phillies' 9-2 blowout of the Cardinals, put the Cubs alone in first place in the NL Central for the first time this season (they were tied for the top spot five other dates, all in April, the last time April 21, when the team record was 8-4). It also put the Cubs three games ahead of St. Louis in the loss column -- and I know we had a long discussion about that earlier this year, but that really is important. Those are three wins that don't have to be made up later, and the Cubs still have five games in hand -- they have played 96 games, the Cardinals 101. Today's paid crowd of 41,528 was, by 19 people, the largest crowd of the 2009 season to date. And after struggling at home earlier this year, the 30-18 home record is third-best in the NL (behind the Dodgers and Giants).
The offense was also outstanding today -- and I'll give kudos to Milton Bradley, who drew two walks, scoring both times, and singled in four at-bats (and who might have gotten jobbed on a called third strike in the 7th inning). Since Kosuke Fukudome is doing a good job leading off, why not consider batting Bradley second? (Or, maybe not fool around at all with a lineup that's produced eight wins in ten games since the All-Star break.) Fukudome also made an outstanding throw after catching a fly ball, to nail Edwin Encarnacion trying to score. Dusty Baker came out to argue -- that's probably more animated than we saw him the entire four years he managed the Cubs. That throw saved Angel Guzman from what could have been a bad inning -- he walked two, uncharacteristic for him, and Fukudome's throw kept the inning scoreless. Bradley was waiting for Fukudome at the dugout to congratulate him -- Milton seemed really fired up about the play and that's the kind of thing I do love to see. It does seem as if this team is, at last, after 96 games, finding its identity.
Alfonso Soriano continued his hot streak with two hits and even though he hit into a double play to end the seventh-inning rally, that ball was laced hard right at Edwin Encarnacion. Soriano may be beginning one of those "carry the team" streaks -- only right now, there are different heroes every day. Raise your hand if you thought Koyie Hill was going to hit both a double and triple this afternoon.
Here's the only negative about today's game -- Jeff Samardzija had a shaky ninth inning, forcing Lou to summon Kevin Gregg to close things out. Samardzija has to be a prime candidate to go back to Iowa when Ryan Dempster is activated to start on Tuesday. It seems the tinkering they've done with his mechanics simply isn't working -- I think the Shark should go back to what he was doing last year, when he pitched well in relief down the stretch. Gregg threw four pitches -- same as Saturday -- to notch his 21st save, which is only four off the league lead.
Trade rumors were quiet today -- it seems as if the Cubs are going to wait & see what happens over the next few days, particularly with B.J. Ryan due to report to Iowa tomorrow. If Ryan is healthy and throwing the way he did last year, that might be a better acquisition than any other relief pitcher the Cubs could acquire (and would allow Sean Marshall to take over Ted Lilly's rotation slot), and the cost is only a pro-rated portion of the minimum salary.
Keep the faith, everyone. The Cubs are in first place and playing well. Onward to defeating the Astros this week.