Since everything seems to have gone wrong this year, I decided to write a story about an alternate reality where everything went right. Any spelling, grammatical or continuity errors are the fault of the copy desk.
With 60 Games to Go, 2011 Cubs Have Fans Dreaming Big
Chicago Tribune, July 25, 2011 -
Even the most optimistic Cubs fan couldn't have dreamed of this reality.
With 60 games remaining in the regular season and the trade deadline looming Sunday, the Cubs are sitting pretty at the top of the NL Central with a 60-42 record, six games in front of the surprising Pirates and the resilient Cardinals. The season has been a big surprise for many of the Wrigley faithful who came into 2010 skeptical of the squad's chances to compete. But everything seems to be going right for Mike Quade's Cubs. Here's a look at the team's performance so far.
Starting Pitching - The Cubs raised some eyebrows in Spring Training when the jettisoned popular left-hander Tom Gorzelanny and equally unpopular Carlos Silva. But the Cubs starting staff has proved to be up to the task. Veterans Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza and Carlos Zambrano all have ERA's in the low threes and have 10 wins each. Randy Wells battled some injuries in the early going but has rebounded from his sophomore slump of 2010. Wells biggest improvement has been in overcoming his first inning struggles - this season he has an era of 1.20.
Zambrano has continued his "maturity" and has once again shown himself to be the squad's ace. "The game has become fun again," he said. "Things are going to go wrong, I'm going to have bad outings, but it's nothing to lose your mind over."
Rookie Andrew Cashner had a bit of a scare when he "tweaked" his arm in his first start, but a stint on the disabled list seems to have taken care of any issues. The fireballer, who many have compared to Kerry Wood, has a modest 5-3 record, but is the leader in strikeouts among rookie starters.
"I never had his fastball," Wood said. "He doesn't have my curveball, but his fastball has a late movement that is filthy." Wood added that he has been working with the staff on teaching them the cut fastball that he learned from Mariano Rivera during his stay in New York and that Cashner has been the star pupil.
Casey Coleman filled in adequately in his brief call-up from Iowa, going 2-2 in six starts. The relative health and stability of the starting five has meant the Cubs have not had to dip into their pool of retread hurlers at Iowa, including Ramon Ortiz, Rodrigo Lopez and the recently released Doug Davis.
Bullpen - Sean Marshall, Wood and Carlos Marmol have proven to be a formidable combination over the final three innings, exactly as GM Jim Hendry intended. Youngsters Marcos Mateo and James Russell have pitched well when necessary, and veteran LOOGY John Grabow has almost made fans forget about how angry they were when Hendry signed him to a large contract two years ago. Rookie Chris Carpenter had his "cup-of-coffee" in early May, but was sent back down to Iowa to get a little more minor league experience. He may be back for the September playoff-push, if things get that far.
Infield - Shortstop Starlin Castro made the All-Star team and was heralded for his vast improvements on defense since his rookie season. Castro has played intelligently, cutting down on mental errors on the easy plays, and showing his range and a Shawon Dunston-esque arm when he needs to. His .300 average in the top 2 spots has given the Cubs a spark.
"He's gone from good to great," Quade said. "Watching his performance has been exhilarating."
Castro has been helped by third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who is making a case for the Cubs to pick up his 2012 option with a spectacular offensive season. Newcomer Carlos Pena is making his $10 million dollar contract look like a bargain, both at the plate and in the field. His power bat was a known commodity, but his work with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo to occasionally drive the ball to the opposite field has elevated his game. Second base has been a mix-and-match combination, with rookie Darwin Barney taking the lead. In the long run, the Oregon State product won't make anyone forget Ryne Sandberg, or Ryan Theriot for that matter, but his defense has solidified the Cubs middle infield. Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt have each been invaluable, logging innings at three of the four infield spots and spelling the regulars long enough to keep them fresh. Baker crushes lefties at a .350 clip while DeWitt's versatility and three pinch hit homers has made him a fan favorite and has earned the nickname "The Franchise."
Outfield - The biggest surprise for the Cubs has been the spectacular resurgence of Alfonso Soriano. Having fought injuries the past couple of seasons, Soriano spent the winter at "Camp Colvin" in Mesa to strengthen his legs and has managed to stay largely injury free. The veteran also changed his approach at the plate, abandoning his tree-trunk-like 36 ounce bat for a 32-ounce bat. His OBP is still low and he still flails away at the outside breaking ball, but his .298 average and 12 homers have helped drive the team's offense.
"It helps me get the bat through the zone quicker," he said. "It has been an adjustment, but the numbers speak for themselves."
Veteran Marlon Byrd has solidified center field, even though he admits that he knows he is just a placeholder for the surging Brett Jackson at AAA Iowa. He has been a vocal team leader, even when he missed three weeks after being hit in the head with a pitch.
Kosuke Fukudome will never be Ichiro Suzuki, but his defense in right field has been solid. He has continued to frustrate at the plate, getting off to his traditional hot start before cooling off. Fortunately, Tyler Colvin has played well as the fourth outfielder, spending time at each of the three spots and hitting six homers along the way. Super-sub Reed Johnson, a fan favorite, continues to wow defensively and is one of the team's leading hitters against southpaws.
Catching - The tandem of Geovany Soto and Koyie Hill isn't going to make anyone forget Johnny Bench or Yogi Berra, but they both call a good game and have earned the trust of the pitching staff. Hill has never been much of a hitter and Soto will not be the 25-homer guy the Cubs might have envisioned a few years ago, but he has nothing to be ashamed of.
Manager - For Quade, 2011 hasn't been quite as easy as the end of 2010, when the Cubs were largely playing out the string. The players fought to make Quade the manager and they haven't let him down.
In the off-season, Quade preached accountability and fundamentals, and the team has responded. The Cubs have been one of the most fundamentally sound teams in the league, doing the little things that win ball games - hitting the cutoff man, good situational hitting, making pitches that count. The few times that things have gone wrong, the Cubs have stood together and taken responsibility for their mistakes. It's these sort of "intangibles" that help take a good team and make them a championship team.
Even when Quade makes a mistake, it seems to turn positive for him. His habit of assigning nicknames to every player was initially panned by fans and media alike. But with the Cubs winning, suddenly that little fault has become a novelty. In fact, T-shirts featuring the "Quade-isms" have become hot sellers at the shirt stands surrounding Wrigley Field.
Coaching Staff - Quade surrounded himself with a somewhat inexperienced coaching staff, but the results have been positive. Pitching coach Mark Riggins has worked well with his pitchers seems to have developed a similar rapport as Larry Rothschild had with the squad last season. Wood has served as a secondary coach in the bullpen.
Third base coach Ivan DeJesus made some early season mistakes, showing an over-aggressive tendency that resulted in several runners being gunned down on the basepaths over the first few games, but his judgment has since improved and he has gone mostly unnoticed - the best quality for a third base coach. The Cubs are not a fast team, but base running coach Bob Dernier has them running intelligently, taking what the defense gives them.
Bench coach Pat Listach has worked well with Quade and has shown himself to be a good sounding board, helping the rookie manager overcome some of the hurdles that go hand in hand with your first big league job. Listach, a former big league shortstop and the 1992 Rookie of the Year, has also spent a great deal of time working with Castro
Jaramillo has bonded with the hitters, particularly with Soriano, and the team's .279 team average and .298 average in "clutch" situations has made him worth every penny of his $850,000 salary.
Outlook - Things have gone well, almost too well for the psyches of weary Cubs fans. But if there is a team that will make them forget 1984, 1989, 2003 and more, it could be this one.