MILWAUKEE -- Now that was fun!
Sometimes, when the Cubs aren't winning and players aren't performing and we get bogged down in "what's wrong with this team?", we forget that baseball is a game and is supposed to be fun.
Last night's 5-1 Cubs win over the Brewers was just that -- fun, and you could see the entire team enjoying themselves, from each and every member of the team standing at the dugout rail or edge of the bullpen wall when Carlos Zambrano was at bat, to the "group hug" among the Cubs outfielders after a win that has replaced the "group jump" that was common for the last few years.
More than just fun, though, this is the way I suspect Lou and the brass envisioned things when they moved Carlos Zambrano to the bullpen. His one full inning of relief wasn't that solid -- he gave up a couple of hits, a walk, and a run -- but when Z was summoned in the seventh inning with the tying run on base, two out and a hot hitter (Rickie Weeks) at bat, he did exactly what a setup reliever ideally does: got the hitter to make the third out of the inning, using only two pitches. Weeks broke his bat and hit a weak grounder back to Z.
All of this generated the second loud roar from the Cubs fans (maybe 35-40% of the sellout at Miller Park) in only a couple of minutes; Z's entrance from the bullpen resulted in a standing ovation, loud enough to drown out boos from the Brewers fans. I'd expect another such reaction the first time he comes in from the Wrigley bullpen this week.
Z wasn't done, either; he then came up with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth and instead of trying to hit a ball down I-94 all the way to Chicago, launched a sacrifice fly that made the score 4-0. Irony: that stole a save opportunity from Carlos Marmol. If Z hadn't thrown so many pitches in the 8th, maybe Lou would have left him out there for the 9th and the save, considering he went into the last of the 8th with a 5-0 lead.
This game, clearly, wasn't all Z: the return of Ted Lilly to the rotation was a crashing success. Ted threw only 78 pitches in six innings, allowing a pair of singles, a double to Casey McGehee, and two walks, while striking out four. His velocity seemed to get better as the night went on -- the scoreboard pitch speed didn't have him at 90 MPH until the fifth inning -- and with only 78 pitches, he probably could have come out for the seventh. Instead, Lou turned to John Grabow, who was better than many earlier outings, but still not the solid setup man Jim Hendry was envisioning when he signed him to that two-year deal. He faced four hitters, walking one, giving up a single and getting a pair of ground balls before Z bailed him out.
Credit to the offense, which again got hits when they needed to; Marlon Byrd had three more hits and leads the team with 14 RBI. Aramis Ramirez may have been only 1-for-4, but you can see signs of him breaking out of it; one of his outs was a 395-foot fly ball to the deepest part of the park.
Baseball's funny as well as fun: the Brewers had scored 47 runs in the four games prior to this series; now the Cubs have held them to only a single run in each of the two games so far. The Cubs also have their first road series win of the year. Let's go for the sweep today. The pregame thread will post a little later than usual this morning -- 11:30 am CDT.
To no one's surprise, Jeff Samardzija was optioned to Iowa to make room for Ted on the 25-man roster. The good news is: Samardzija will join the Iowa bullpen. I have never thought Shark was suited to be a starter and if he can get his mind wrapped around a specific bullpen role, he might still be able to become a competent major league pitcher. The Cubs could use the bullpen help -- let's hope this works.
Note: if you are driving to Miller Park from the Chicago area this afternoon, leave extra time -- there is road construction just across the state line in Kenosha County, some more in Racine County, and the usual torn-up roads in the Milwaukee area. The portion of the Tri-State Tollway in Illinois that was under construction last year, though, is really nice -- now four lanes in each direction from about Illinois 22 to the Wisconsin line.