Jeff Samardzija threw 105 pitches in 5.2 innings last night, walked four and was constantly in trouble.
And yet, he kept getting out of that trouble and even drove in a run last night, posting his first major league win as a starter. The Cubs beat the Cardinals 5-1, which is always nice to do, even though they were also mathematically eliminated from playoff contention last night when the Reds defeated the Diamondbacks.
The Reds' win and Cardinals' defeat increased Cincinnati's lead in the NL Central to seven games; the Cardinals have 20 games remaining and the Reds 18, so we're getting into 2007 Mets territory if the Reds are going to blow this lead. I'm happy to be part of any removal of St. Louis from a division race, not that I have any great love for the Reds (considering how much their fans and broadcasters seem to hate us), but it's always nice to see new blood in the postseason. It appears that there will be at least four, probably five, and possibly as many as six teams in the playoffs this year that weren't there a year ago.
The Cardinals kept stranding baserunners last night the way the Cubs were earlier this year; they left 12 in all, while the Cubs were getting hits in key situations and taking an early 4-0 lead. Geovany Soto went 3-for-3 and Alfonso Soriano drove in a pair, giving him 74 for the season. The last time a Cubs team had its RBI leader have fewer than 80 (actually, also fewer than 90) was in 1989, when Mark Grace led the team with 79. Soriano may not get to 90, but he's got a pretty good shot at least getting to 80. People complain about Soriano all the time, but he is having a season that's very much in line with his career norms. His batting average is a little low, and he doesn't steal bases any more (pretty normal for someone entering his mid 30's), but his SLG this season is .500 (career .509) and OPS .819 (career .835), and he will play in the most games he has played in since he became a Cub. If the Cubs can improve at other positions, he's a competent left fielder.
The Cubs are banged up a little; Starlin Castro was a late scratch because of the bruised hip he suffered last week at home, and Tyler Colvin was pulled from the game in the fourth inning after he was hit by a pitch on his elbow -- hope that's nothing serious.
But the key to last night's game was the Shark wiggling his way out of trouble for six innings. Next year will be the last year of the five-year deal he signed after being paid way over slot as a fifth round pick in 2006. He'll get some more starts the rest of the year, the next one likely Sunday against the Marlins. If he shows he has matured as a pitcher, he could be in the mix to be a starter next year, or at the very least help out a bullpen that was awful much of 2010. He seems to have finally developed a repertoire that includes good offspeed pitches.
The Cubs have now allowed three runs -- total -- in their last four games and have been outscored by 91 runs for the season. They have allowed 95 unearned runs, as I have pointed out before, by far the most in the major leagues. The MLB average is 50. If the Cubs had allowed 45 fewer unearned runs, that would likely mean five or six more wins. It's not just the errors; it's the fact that after the errors, Cubs pitchers have not locked down and stopped teams from scoring. Fix that and you've corrected a big part of this year's problems.
That's why I don't think it's impossible for the Cubs to contend in 2011. Likely? No. But possible? Sure. Now go beat the Cardinals again tonight.