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With A Little Help From Your Friends

... or, as the case may be, your enemies.

You can breathe out now, my friends, and hate the Cardinals again. But they helped the Cubs out the last two days, today coming from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Astros 6-4.

That, combined with the Cubs' impressive 4-1 win over the Pirates in Pittsburgh, cut the deficit in the NL Central to only half a game. As I mentioned earlier today, sometimes blowout losses like last night's can cleanse and rally a team to better things, and it did so today; I imagine Aramis Ramirez felt he had something to prove to the Pirates in what was their last home game of 2003, and he sure did so with his two homers. That gave him 102 RBI for the year (35 as a Cub in 56 games, which would translate to over 100 in a full season).

Mark Prior -- what more can you say about this man who just turned 23 years old, yet seems like he's been in the majors for ten years. In the last six games of the season, Kerry Wood (who finally seems to have arrived) and Prior will start three of them, which gives me great hope. Prior struck out 14 today, even though at times the Pirates were hitting ropes off him; he managed every time he was in trouble to get out of it, but was laboring at the end, having thrown 131 pitches; Mike Remlinger and Joe Borowski did their jobs, and so the rest of the bullpen is well-rested (and Remlinger threw only five pitches and Borowski 12, so they weren't overtaxed either) and with not having to throw again till Tuesday night, the club is in good shape.

Not so with Houston, whose pitching staff slogged through 13 innings yesterday and used five relievers today and has to play seven games in seven days, beginning tomorrow against the Giants. All of Houston's games are at home; the Giants have a winning record on the road and as I've said, I do believe Felipe Alou has enough integrity to play his regulars in these important games. Barry Bonds, for one, has plenty of motivation; he's three homers away from tying his godfather, Willie Mays, for third on the all-time list, and he's always hit well in whatever they are calling the ballpark in Houston this month. To Alou's credit, he is resting many of his regulars today against the Dodgers, presumably so they'll be ready to face Houston tomorrow.

The Cubs' pitching staff broke the major league single-season team record for strikeouts today, with Prior's 14 and Remlinger's one, and now totals 1352 for the season, with a chance to get to 1400 or more with six games remaining. The record was held... by the 2001 Cubs. The Cub staff will also accomplish something that has never been done by an NL team (it was done once in the AL, by the 1968 Cleveland Indians) -- they will have more strikeouts than hits allowed; with the six games left they have 1263 hits allowed. (The Dodgers will also accomplish that milestone this season.)

Speaking of help, the Braves and Reds also helped out the Cubs today by defeating the wild-card-leading Marlins and Phillies, respectively, so the Cubs trail Florida by 1.5 games and Philadelphia by 1, and the Marlins host the Phillies in a 3-game series beginning Tuesday (after Florida finishes their wrap-around series against Atlanta tomorrow).

The Reds could help the Cubs out again this week, and the Cubs will not face Josh Hall, who tied them in knots a week ago at Wrigley Field. Matchups for the Reds series:

Tuesday: Wood vs. Etherton
Wednesday: Zambrano vs. Bale
Thursday: well.....

The Reds will start, of all people, former Cub Todd Van Poppel. Dusty is keeping his options open. His latest thinking is to hold Matt Clement till Saturday at home, giving him two extra days of rest, and then Prior will go Friday and Wood next Sunday against the Pirates. So, Juan Cruz, or, as I shuddered earlier today, Shawn Estes, might go on Thursday.

Spent part of the afternoon listening to the game on the radio as I attended yet another of my son Mark's fall-league baseball games, which his team won impressively, 15-1. Even better was the fact that the team his club beat was... the Yankees.

Hope is most definitely alive, and being fitted for a Giants cap tonight.