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Bewitched

You can ask anyone who was there -- Howard, Carole, Jeff or Brian.

I really did say this, right when Brad Lidge (who threw 35 pitches in two innings yesterday) came into the game in the bottom of the 10th to face Sammy Sosa:

"How about he hits the first pitch onto the street and let's go home!"

BOOM!

That, as you no doubt know, is precisely what happened, and Sammy's 13th homer of the season and 552nd of his career, gave the Cubs a thrilling 5-4 win over the Astros, winning their first series in two weeks (since the Oakland series) and moving to within three games of the first-place Cardinals, who were idle today.

That wasn't the only eerie thing that happened today. Howard wasn't going to stop and get sandwiches, but he decided to anyway, and then he had some extra tickets to get rid of, so he finally arrived in the bottom of the first. So the game had already started when I dropped the ceremonial tomato on my scorecard.

These tomatoes must have more power than we think. No, the Cubs didn't score in the Tomato Inning, but get this. It landed right on Rey Ordonez' square in the second. We got immediate gratification -- Ordonez slammed a double into left-center. Not only that, he got another hit in the fourth, an RBI single, and raised his average from putrid (.083) to awful (.128).

Do NOT underestimate the power of tomatoes from Jimmy John's!

This all happened after the Embarrassing Al Moment of the Day. About half an hour after the gates opened, a woman wearing sunglasses and a Colorado Buffaloes baseball cap walked by and said, "Hi, Al!" I said hi, pleasantly, then turned to Jeff and said, "Who was that?"

Turned out to be our ABC-7 weekend morning anchor Stacey Baca, who had come to the game along with her sister. Embarrassing? Gee, I only work with her five days a week. She's good luck for the Cubs, though -- she's shown up a couple of times a year since she moved to Chicago in 2002, and the Cubs always win when she's there. As I was leaving I told her about the statement I'd made to everyone else about Sammy's homer, and she said that she was worried about what I'd said about the Cubs always winning. But they came through, in dramatic fashion.

Let me take this opportunity to say that I agree with my friend Craig, who is a Cub fan living in Kansas City, and thus has seen Carlos Beltran play often during his career there, and who e-mailed me today:

Do you understand now about Beltran? He is immensely talented and has a flair for the dramatic (or "clutch," if you must). This is why I so desperately wanted the Cubs to go after him. Beltran has already talked about how much he likes it in Houston; I would not be at all surprised to see him stay there if he finishes the year there. If he does in fact go on the FA market, I hope the Cubs go after him in a big way. And you haven't even seen what he can do on defense yet - he's the best I've seen going back on the ball since, well, since Willie Mays.

I'm in agreement here, except for what he says about Beltran staying in Houston. Since his acquisition, the Astros, who no longer have much of a bullpen, are 2-4, and the two wins (yesterday, on his homer, and last Sunday at Texas, when he stole a homer over the CF fence and the Astros won 1-0) have been accomplished by Beltran himself, almost singlehandedly. If Houston falls further out of the race, as I mentioned yesterday, I can see him being traded again. Speaking of that, here's another e-mail I received from Mike Johnson, clarifying that doing that wouldn't really be like Mike Piazza in 1998, but more like another recent deal:

While your reference to that trade of Piazza to the Marlins for just one week would be similar to Beltran if the Stros flip him before the deadline, the intents of those deals were different. The Marlins were in the middle of their firesale and everybody knew they would dump his salary as soon as they could. The Astros acquired Beltran because they were trying to win the division. If they indeed trade him again, it will be more like the Cliff Floyd trade in 2002. He was traded to the Expos for two weeks and then traded to the BoSox after they fell out of contention.

Mike, you're absolutely right on both counts.

More on today's game, played on a warm but not hot day (81 degrees at gametime) in bright sunshine: Mark Prior finally looked like he was clicking on all cylinders. He ran out of gas in the 8th having thrown 96 pitches, and had Kent Mercker not given up Beltran's three-run homer (his second homer of the game, fourth in six games as an Astro, and 19th of the year overall) on the first pitch he threw, Prior's ERA would have gone way down -- as it was, it's still a respectable 3.37. Kyle Farnsworth and Jon Leicester kept the Astros bats silent the rest of the way, and Leicester, who doesn't throw really hard, seems to have great location on his pitches and perhaps could become a valuable setup man as his career progresses.

It's been said that the Cubs have become a team sitting back and waiting for home runs, and as if to contradict that, they had two nice run-scoring rallies today that did NOT involve home runs, particularly in the fourth, when they parlayed a walk and two singles, sandwiching Michael Barrett's third triple of the year (tying a career high for him), into three runs. Corey Patterson played well, beating out two infield hits and playing nicely in the outfield (yes, we made sure to tell him how bad he sucks after each nice play; can't get complacent, you know!).

We witnessed perhaps the weirdest defensive play you'll ever see: in the Houston 9th, Morgan Ensberg led off with a single and after numerous Farnsworth throws to first, they finally caught him off base -- with the strange sight of Barrett running directly at him, rather than throwing the ball to either Derrek Lee at 1B or Mark Grudzielanek at 2B. Barrett wound up tagging Ensberg out. This is how they teach players to do rundowns -- as a fielder, you're supposed to run directly at the runner. Barrett, of course, came up as a third baseman, and in this play his infielder's instincts took over and it worked. It was well executed, and though my friend Dave doesn't think much of Barrett as a catcher, and yes, he's not the best in the game, I think he has worked hard and improved his defense, and you cannot argue with his .285/.337/.482 hitting stats (.820 OPS, excellent for a catcher).

In other news today, Kerry Wood threw another simulated game, only to be conked on the chin by a hit off the bat of Paul Bako. Wood wasn't hurt, and considering it was hit by Bako in a simulated game, maybe it was just a simulated line drive (rimshot optional). The article also says that Wood may go on a rehab assignment next week and if that goes well, could start in St. Louis before the All-Star break.

Finally, tomorrow the White Sox invade, and let's hope their five-game winning streak will satisfy them and they'll be ready to lose a few. Oddly, the White Sox have won this interleague series 4-2 in each odd-numbered year since 1999, and in each even-numbered year since then, the teams have split. If that holds this year, the Cubs should win 2 of 3 this weekend -- but let's hope for more!

Expected pitching matchups:

Friday, 2:20 PM, FSN: Zambrano vs. Loaiza
Saturday, 12:20 PM, Fox-TV (regional): Maddux vs. Diaz
Sunday, 7:05 PM, ESPN: Rusch vs. Buehrle

Bring 'em on.