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The Beginning Of The End

Dusty Baker has a reputation as a great motivator of baseball players, and his teams have repeatedly shown resilience in the face of sometimes seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Well, this one's probably the biggest mountain he's ever had to climb, and I'll go through all the reasons for that in a moment.

Just to give you an example of how ridiculous today was, a very large, very drunk man and his equally drunk wife were sitting across the aisle from us waving two medium-size Cub flags the whole game. This normally wouldn't be a problem, except as they got drunker they started waving them in Jeff's face. After a while he got sick of this and grabbed them away, a reasonable reaction, I thought.

Of course, being drunk, the guy got ornery, threatened Jeff (and Howard, who is about the most peaceable man I know) with the usual "Meet me outside" nonsense, then said he was going to go get security.

After having told the whole story to the paramedics stationed at the stairs (instead of security -- hey, they had uniforms on, right?), security did come and got all four of them, brought them downstairs to talk about it, and everyone came back peacefully; the flags were put away, and Howard said, defusing all the tension: "Both benches have been warned."

There's no good way to put this, so I'm just going to say it. The Cubs blew a six-run, sixth-inning lead in about the worst way imaginable and lost to the Cardinals 11-8, and you know how we've been complaining that we can't catch up because we don't play them again?

Forget it. Good riddance. 11-8 was also the final result of the season series between the Cardinals and Cubs, and frankly, considering St. Louis is 59-34, that means the Cubs actually played them pretty well (they are 48-26 against everyone other than the Cubs so far this year).

It started out so well, too. Though I ran into traffic on Lake Shore Drive (explain to me, please, why the city chooses the afternoon of a ballgame to water the plants in the median between Belmont and Fullerton, causing a huge backup?), I managed to find an almost-too-small parking space, but wedged myself in, allowing about three inches on either side of my car. Meanwhile, Howard was running late and though he did bring me a sandwich, he didn't arrive till after game time so I declared that the Tomato Inning would be taking today off. Everyone agreed that this might be just the thing that would spur the Cubs on -- and note the power of the tomato, the Cubs had a seven-run inning anyway. That's the second inning of seven or more runs the Cubs have had against the Cardinals this year, chasing Matt Morris, who had his shortest and worst outing of the season, only an inning and two-thirds.

So far so good, right?

Yeah, it was terrific until the sixth, when Glendon Rusch, who had pretty well run smoothly (except for the first of Albert Pujols' three homers in the third), gave up three little bleeder hits, any and all of which could have and should have been turned into outs, and with the bases loaded and Rusch at 105 pitches, Dusty decided he'd had enough and called on Francis Beltran, who for the second time this week couldn't find the strike zone.

Phil kept saying, "Where's Todd Wellemeyer?" and I have to agree with him. Once again, the Cubs are carrying twelve pitchers and why bother doing this if you are not going to use them? Wellemeyer stayed anchored to the bench, as he's been since his recall last weekend, and the rest of the pen imploded badly -- eleven hits and nine runs in the last four innings. Pujols did it almost singlehandedly, going five-for-five with the three homers, and five RBI, and four runs scored, and... need I go on?

It's really simple. Contending teams should not blow six-run leads with twelve outs to go. Period. Dave was saying this even into the eighth inning, when the Cubs had an 8-7 lead with the dreaded (ever since NLCS game six) five outs to go. Then So Taguchi, who isn't much taller than Wendell Kim, smacked an opposite-field homer onto Waveland to tie the game. Then LaTroy Hawkins melted down pitching, allowing two homers, and then inexplicably had a temper tantrum in front of plate umpire Tim Tschida -- so bad that it took nearly half the team to push him away. I imagine he'll be fined and perhaps suspended. Hawkins was great in the setup role, but he's really not suited to be a closer, and this may be something Jim Hendry has to address soon. More on this anon.

Speaking of Kim, he apologized "to the entire city of Chicago" today for sending Aramis Ramirez home last night, probably costing the Cubs the game. Yeah, I bet all the Sox fans are really happy about that apology today. Seriously, it's time for Kim to go, or at the very least, if loyalty really is an issue, why not just switch him and Gene Clines as base coaches? I have no idea how good Clines would be as a 3B coach, but the point is -- he could hardly be any worse than Kim.

Dave and I got to talking late in the game about how this team badly needs a shakeup, like the one they got just about this time a year ago with the acquisitions of Kenny Lofton and Ramirez. He suggested that a bold move could be to try to pry away Ichiro Suzuki and Eddie Guardado away from Seattle. There have been rumors about Ichiro for a couple of months, and Guardado and Hawkins were a good tag-team in Minnesota. It'd cost Corey Patterson and probably Angel Guzman and maybe even Felix Pie, and though those are the crown jewels of the Cub farm system, I'd do it, because it could jump-start this club, which even with this latest string of losses, still is in the pile of teams that refuses to sort itself out in the wild-card race. I'd do something just that bold if I were Jim Hendry, because this club seems to be crushed under the weight of the expectations that were put on it before the season began, the pick of Sports Illustrated and others to win the World Series (and SI, thanks again -- and yes, I'm being sarcastic -- for putting Kerry Wood on the cover and costing him two months. Say! How about a cover this week featuring Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols!), and if this miracle is to happen, it had better start now.

Incidentally, for perspective: On this date one year ago, the eventual World Champion Marlins were 50-48, 15.5 games out of first place, and tied for fifth in the wild-card race, with Montreal, five games behind the Phillies, who led it at the time. The Marlins went 41-23 from that point. It can be done.

Mark Prior threw without pain today and if he feels good after this, he'll start on Sunday at Philadelphia. It's time for him to step up -- right now, he's been about the worst starter we have, and though of course you don't want to ruin him for the rest of his career, if there's no structural damage, perhaps he just has to pitch through it like just about every pitcher out there, almost all of whom will tell you they throw through aches and pains all year. If Prior does indeed have the "perfect mechanics" that everyone speaks of, then let's step up.

Someone else who has to step up is Sammy Sosa, who went 0-for-5 today and looked really bad doing it and actually got booed when he popped up on the second pitch he saw in the ninth inning, after it was clear that if you waited out Jason Isringhausen, he was going to put people on base, which he did with a single and two walks. Dave said right then, "This could turn the season around right here," if Aramis Ramirez could have pulled it out with a miracle grand slam, but he wasn't patient either.

There seemed more Cardinal fans in the ballpark today than last night, or indeed for any of the other home games against St. Louis this year, and it got lots louder from them in the ninth, by which time the park was about as empty as I've seen it this year.

The Reds beat the Brewers 6-2 today, so the Cubs fall behind them into third place.

But they can do something about that tomorrow, with the Reds coming to town for another abbreviated two-game series. I think tomorrow will be a good day to bring out a new scorekeeping pencil. The current one seems to have run out of luck.

We continue to hope. As Cubs fans, you know we cannot do otherwise. Keep the faith.