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Looking Back, And Forward

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Eight hundred sixty-six days ago, the Cubs played the Expos in Montreal.

Before today, that was the last time the Cubs played in that Canadian city; last year, the Cubs-Expos series was played in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

That date, April 17, 2002, produced quite an interesting game; the Cubs scored six runs in the first inning, and then proceeded to give them back, and back, and back, until the Expos had a 15-8 win.

To show you how completely Jim Hendry has turned around this franchise in a little over two years' time, of the twenty-five players currently on the Cubs' active roster, only six were active the last time the Cubs played in Olympic Stadium: Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou, Corey Patterson, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement (two others, Joe Borowski and our pal Dr. Tightpants, active then, are now on the DL -- Mark Prior had not yet made his ML debut at that time).

That's the core of this year's team, I think not coincidentally, and unbelievably, here are some of the names that did appear for the Cubs on April 17, 2002:

Delino DeShields
Chris Stynes
Jason Bere
Donovan Osborne
Jesus Sanchez
Robert Machado

Had enough? I have. Yuck!

I spent most of my day again doing catch-up from things I'd put off during the homestand, running errands (Hey! I was totally out of my favorite low-carb ice cream, which incidentally you ought to try even if you're not on an Atkins-related diet.

Speaking of Atkins, Mike reminded me recently that there was a low-carb vs. sugar matchup in the recent White Sox/Indians series: Coco Crisp vs. Jon Adkins. Yeah, I know, groan away. They faced each other twice. Results: double play and sacrifice bunt. Draw your own conclusions.

I have digressed. Let's talk about our revamped Cubs. Today, they traveled to another country, played on artificial turf for the first time this season, and in front of a crowd about a third of what they're used to (this is the first game they have played that was not sold out since August 5 in Colorado). So what happens? Greg Maddux threw a game reminiscent of his glory days of the mid 90's, the offense clicked early and, even though Jon Leicester gave up a consolation two-run homer to Terrmel Sledge (great baseball name, incidentally), the Cubs dispatched the Expos easily, 5-2. Maddux threw 102 pitches in his seven innings, allowed five hits and no walks (which gives him a season total of 28 walks in 175 IP), and lowered his ERA to 3.70 -- even lower than what it was last season -- and won his thirteenth game of the year and 302nd of his career, with last-out save help from LaTroy Hawkins.

As Steve Stone repeatedly said on the telecast, these are the games the Cubs absolutely must win. With Jose Vidro and Nick Johnson out and Brad Wilkerson not playing tonight, the Expos put what amounted to little more than a Triple-A lineup on the field and it showed. They started Rocky Biddle, who came in with a lifetime ERA of 1.93 against the Cubs but a season ERA of 7.32, and it showed.

They came in with the umpires against them and it showed. No, seriously, the umpires aren't against the Expos, but they made another blatantly bad call that went the Cubs' way and we'll take it. In the bottom of the second with no score, two Expos singles and a sacrifice put runners on second and third, and on a contact play Juan Rivera tried to score from third. Replays showed he clearly got his hand on the plate before Paul Bako got the ball, but plate umpire Ted Barrett never saw it, made no call, and as Rivera ran away from the plate, Bako tagged him and Barrett called him out.

That's the closest the Expos came to scoring till the ninth inning. Maddux was masterful, and he even showed some of his old-style hitting prowess, singling twice, scoring a run and driving one in. Even Bako has warmed up his bat, getting two hits himself, and not a moment too soon, because he'll be needed to catch Maddux not only for the rest of the season, but in the postseason. I watched Montreal's catcher Brian Schneider have a really nice at-bat, fouling off seven pitches after going down 0-2, then smacking a double to CF, and thinking he'd make a fine, fine backup left-handed hitting catcher to Michael Barrett. But that's for next year, perhaps.

The rest of the Cub offense was provided in part by two Montreal errors and then a timely two-run Sammy Sosa double. Sammy's started to look a bit better with the bat, and his 2-for-4 night raised his batting average to .260.

This is what I've seen this club do time and time again this year -- come back from losing streaks where they look absolutely horrible, and start a winning streak where they look unbeatable. Yes, I know the opposition is not major league caliber. But the games count in the standings, and with the Giants blowing a 9th-inning lead and losing 7-6 to Atlanta, the Cubs move a game ahead of them, and a half-game ahead of the idle San Diego Padres, into first place in the wild-card race.

Now, we have to hold our noses and root for the Cardinals for the next three days, as they host San Diego. The Padres have the second-best road record in baseball (behind only St. Louis), but the Cardinals are nearly unbeatable at home.

And as if the Cubs didn't have enough to worry about, they may have to deal with Hurricane Frances, which may make landfall in south Florida sometime late Saturday, just about gametime. Let's hope the hurricane veers off in the next four days.