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State Of The Cubs

It's still a few days till the one-third mark of the season, but the end of this long road trip and beginning of a long homestand (12 games) seems to be a good time to take stock of what we've seen so far.

Dusty Baker has, almost singlehandedly, changed the attitude and demeanor of this team from 2002. Yes, the deadwood and poor players from last year are gone, replaced by guys who just seem to want to work hard, but part of that has to be attributed to the players, and part of it to Dusty. It's so clear how the Giants won so many games all the years he was there, even with teams that weren't -- on paper -- as talented as some of their division rivals.

For the first time I can remember -- and maybe ever -- the Cubs have five starting pitchers who can all at least hold their own against the rest of the league. Even Shawn Estes, who has had some miserable starts, is beginning to throw consistently well. And between Wood, Prior and even Zambrano, the Cubs have starters who can dominate the rest of the league. The bullpen, apart from a lapse or three which any bullpen can go through, has been consistently excellent. Do not understate the presence of Mike Remlinger, who has been on many championship teams and knows how to win.

I also can't say enough about how the team has stepped up and won in the absence of its best player, Sammy Sosa, who it now seems might be back as soon as tomorrow. They're 9-5 without him, and that's credit to every single player on the team, all of whom have stepped up at different times to contribute, even Tom Goodwin, who I still think is useless to the team as another LH hitting outfielder, who won one game with a home run.

Any winning team can be likeable; but this team seems particularly so, because they do seem like a team, rather than 25 individual guys just out for themselves. Again, that goes back to Dusty Baker's leadership; he seems to have them focused on the goal, which is making the postseason. It's really way too early to think about that (remember Kansas City and their hot start? Where are they now?) -- but a solid base has been laid, and frankly, I have yet to see a team the Cubs have played that is clearly better than they are, with the possible exception of the Cardinals. Even Houston, who appeared at season's beginning to be better, has shown its considerable weaknesses this weekend.

They proved just about everything I've written about today in their seemingly easy 7-3 win over the Astros. The best thing was that they spotted Houston an early run, with Zambrano looking shaky, then came right back and got contributions from just about everyone in scoring virtually at will. Even the (relatively) useless Tom Goodwin got a hit, a walk(!) and scored two runs.

I was also pleased today to learn that the Illinois legislature has banned sales of ephedra, the supplement that killed Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler during spring training, and has also been responsible for the deaths of a couple of Illinois high school athletes in the last couple years.

It'll be great to get back to the bleachers tomorrow, especially considering how awful the weather was the last time I was there! I can't remember the last time I had a two-week hiatus from the Yard during the baseball season. Right now it's off to take the kids to dinner.