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The Power Of The Tomato

About the third inning of last night's game, the doorbell rang. Insistently, several times.

Well, I thought it was just the kids fooling around, since they had been running in and out of the house the way kids do.

Instead, there was a guy from Jimmy John's delivering a sandwich -- but I hadn't ordered a sandwich.

Taking the bag, I figured it out. There was a note attached, and it read:

This has GOT to work! -- Howard

Then it all made sense. Just before the game started, Howard had called, presumably just to talk, but at one point he had asked me for my address. Now, Howard does know where I live, so I couldn't quite figure it out at the time...

Hey, we all have to take one for the team, right? Anyway, by the time the sandwich arrived, the Cubs were already up 4-0.

I called Howard back and thanked him and asked him if I had to eat the sandwich right then, considering it was nearly 8:00 and I'd already had dinner. He laughed and said no, so I put it in the fridge and I'll have a nice lunch waiting for me after work today.

You see how much power these tomatoes have? I didn't even have to eat one, and since I generally don't keep score when watching on TV, there was no scorecard to drop a tomato piece on, and the Cubs exploded out of their offensive slump and beat the Cardinals easily, 8-4, scoring more runs last night than they did in the previous six games (one of which was the 2-1 win last Sunday over the White Sox.

I'm going to take this one step farther, a bit later in the summer. About two months ago (in fact, just about the time Kerry Wood went on the DL) I planted one beefsteak tomato plant in a container on my deck. There are five little green tomatoes already, and I figure in a few weeks I'll be able to bring home-grown tomato slices to the ballpark. This is in fine baseball tradition, as several teams have had members of their coaching staffs grow tomato plants in their bullpens over the years, including the Orioles and Mets.

Since the game was last night, we spent the afternoon at Carole & Ernie's apartment building, hanging out at the pool. I read the Sunday papers leisurely, did two crossword puzzles (the Chicago Tribune and the NY Times one that appears in the Chicago Sun-Times), learned that Moises Alou lives in a nice three-story brick home right behind this building (no, I'm not saying exactly where this is!), and yes, I did actually go into the pool with the kids for a few minutes (normally, I'd rather just soak up the sun).

Do not underestimate the value of Kerry Wood's terrific comeback performance last night -- in many ways, this is Wood's team, as he has the second-longest tenure among the current Cubs, six years, behind Sammy Sosa. In making his first start in exactly two months (and remember? We all thought he'd be back in two weeks), his velocity was what it should be (consistently 94), he broke off several knee-bending curveballs, and though he was taken out after five innings, having reached the predetermined but unrevealed pitch count of 80, I think we can safely say that after 87 games, the starting rotation envisioned at the beginning of the season, is finally intact and healthy. Yes, Wood gave up a homer to Jim Edmonds (the only run he allowed), but Edmonds is hot right now, having now homered in five consecutive games.

Today's Sun-Times confirms that the rotation after the break will be as follows:

Thursday: Mark Prior
Friday: Matt Clement
Saturday: Greg Maddux
Sunday: Kerry Wood
Monday: Carlos Zambrano

This means that Zambrano and Prior will face the Cardinals in the final two games of the season between the two clubs at Wrigley Field next Monday and Tuesday.

The offense also woke up last night; in addition to Sammy's sixteenth homer (and five RBI, giving him a respectable total of 39 in 55 games played -- he'll have to have a monster second half to extend his streak of 100-RBI seasons to 10), Michael Barrett equalled his homer total from all of last season with his tenth, and the Cubs had fourteen other hits, including three from Jose Macias, who spelled Aramis Ramirez at third last night (yes, I still wish he'd walk more than two times every 100 plate appearances) and even Rey Ordonez chipped in with a couple of singles, raising his average to .172, above what we dubbed the "Hundley Line" a couple of years ago in dishonor of the former Cub catcher (that line being demarcated at .160).

The only discordant note last night was a somewhat shaky ninth inning thrown by LaTroy Hawkins -- again, this happens frequently to closers put in non-closing situations, though only one of the three runs off him was earned, due to Corey Patterson dropping a fly ball, and making the score appear closer than it really was.

And so, the Cubs enter the All-Star break seven games out of first place. Can the division be won? Here are just a few examples of leads this large or larger that have been blown:

August 9, 1969: The Cubs had an 8.5 game lead over the Mets (Cubs: 72-42, Mets: 61-48). Not only did the Cubs have a poor 20-28 record from that point, but the Mets went 39-14.

July 1, 1973: (Not quite the same point, but 81 games into the season, similar to this year) the Cubs had an 8 game lead over the 2nd-place Cardinals, with a 48-33 record and the Cardinals 37-38. The eventual champion Mets were last, 11 games out.

July 10, 1977: (one week prior to ASB, 83 games played, similar to this year again) the Cubs had a 5 game lead (52-31) over the eventual champion Phillies (47-36).

August 14, 1978: The Boston Red Sox had an 8 game lead over the New York Yankees (74-43 to 66-51). The Red Sox actually fell two games out with eight games left, forced a tie by winning on the last day of the season and then lost the famous (or infamous, depending on your allegiance) Bucky Dent tiebreaker game.

August 23, 1995: The Seattle Mariners lose, have a 54-55 record and are third, 11.5 games out. They go 25-11 the rest of the way, force a tie with the Angels and win a tiebreaker game and the division title.

And that doesn't even take into account the wild card, which is currently led by the Giants, one game ahead of the Cubs. In fact, the wild card race is currently so wild, there are no fewer than nine teams within 4.5 games of the lead.

Finally, the Cardinals have been 31-11 since May 26 -- that's a .738 percentage. It is simply not possible for any team to play like that for much longer than the six weeks the Cardinals have done so. Even the two best teams in recent years -- the 1998 Yankees who went 114-48 (.703) and the 2001 Mariners who were 116-46 (.716) couldn't sustain this for an entire season. It will turn around. As I wrote a couple of days ago, this has been a "streaky" season for many teams, including the Cubs, who have not only had two five-game losing streaks, but two separate six-game winning streaks.

Time to start another one, or longer. It can be done. It will be done. Don't you feel it?