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Halfway Home

Of course, the actual mathematical halfway mark of the Cubs' season will occur after tonight's game with the Phillies in Philadelphia, the 81st game, but I thought I'd take this morning to give a bit of halfway-mark analysis, what with the end of interleague play (the Cubs went 9-9 and all six series were 2-1 splits: wins over Baltimore, Tampa Bay and the Yankees, and losses to Toronto and twice to the White Sox), it seems like more of a natural break. I'll update this also during the All-Star break.

What if I had told you back in March that:

1) Sammy Sosa would miss 24 games due to injury and suspension;
2) Matt Clement's ERA would be two runs higher than last year;
3) Mark Bellhorn would have 2 HR at the end of June and would be traded;
4) the expensive Antonio Alfonseca would have zero saves;
5) Bobby Hill would spend all but four at-bats of 2003 at Iowa;
6) Cub catchers would be hitting a collective .218;
7) We'd be screaming at our 3B coach for continually getting runners thrown out at the plate; and
8) The Cubs' leading RBI man would be Corey Patterson.

You'd probably have said that the club would be in last place about 15 games out, right?

Well, all of those things have happened, and yet:

1) The longest losing streak has been only four games;
2) The Cubs are 14-9 in one-run games, one of the better records in the league;
3) The pitching staff is fifth in the league in fewest runs allowed (and only five runs more than the 3rd place team);
4) Mark Prior & Kerry Wood are 1-2 in the league in strikeouts and Wood, Prior and Carlos Zambrano rank 4th, 5th and 10th in the league in ERA;
5) Patterson ranks 13th in the league in RBI and has established himself as a star at 23;
6) Both Wood and Prior may make the All-Star team and either one might have a shot at starting;
7) Joe Borowski has stepped up into the closer role and aside from one spectacular blown save against the Brewers, has done an exemplary job;
8) The Todd Hundley trade produced two useful players in Mark Grudzielanek and Eric Karros.

Statistically -- yes, this Cub team is not impressive, especially offensively, where they rank tied for 10th in the league in runs scored. But somehow they win; and I give almost all the credit for that to Dusty Baker, who has this team -- well, I could say playing over its head, but I don't think so. I'll say playing up to their full potential, which is all any manager or for that matter, any fan, can ask. Yes, this team has weaknesses, some of which are glaring -- but then, so do all three of their division rivals. The NL Central is there for the taking, and any of the four teams which can put together a decent winning streak, will immediately become the favorite.

The Cubs have the best pitching, both starting and relieving, in the division, and if Wood, Prior and Zambrano continue to show what they've been the first half, the Cubs ought to be that team. Yes, I know the Astros have a better closer and setup man in Wagner and Dotel, but the Cubs' bullpen depth is greater, despite the implosions of the last few days. I will say that Antonio Alfonseca should not be put near any sort of game situation for a while; something seems to have gotten into his head, and maybe pitching in garbage time right now would help.

Virtually every Cub fan -- myself included -- hopes, maybe expects, to see Mike Lowell in a Cub uniform by the end of July. It won't be in the next two weeks -- Lowell is likely to be the Marlins' only All-Star, so I doubt they'd be willing to deal him before then. Third base has been a black hole this year -- WHY is Lenny Harris EVER given a start there? -- and the acquisition of Jose Hernandez is not the answer, despite yesterday's home run. If Lowell is acquired, I'd expect Harris to be released.

Caveat -- all of us also thought Fred McGriff was the "last piece of the puzzle" in 2001, but the team started playing worse when he arrived; also, the three-week dog & pony show that he put the Cubs through before accepting the deal, must have worn on the psyches in the clubhouse. Mike Lowell isn't that kind of man, I don't think -- if the Cubs and Marlins do deal, I'd expect Lowell to report right away and contribute. We will get to see him play against the Cubs, likely twice, since the two series vs. Florida will be complete by July 20. Maybe when the Cubs go to Miami right after the All-Star break, that's when the deal could be consummated.

Finally, the toughest part of this is that I've started to believe in this team, and that makes every win sweeter, but every loss that much more heart-wrenching. Last year, when the team was out of it by mid-May and playing poorly, it was easy to let go. This club has an excellent chance to win the NL Central without major changes (3B excepted), and the way the pitching staff is structured, an even better chance to win playoff series. The tough part is getting there.

The second half of the climb begins tonight in Philadelphia. Let's win it.