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Rationalizations

* It only counts as one loss

* There's no way the Cubs were going to hit Livan Hernandez anyway yesterday

* The Cubs are still a game ahead of the Giants in the loss column

* The Cubs had a successful month of August, going 16-12

How am I doing? You still with me? You still convinced that we are marching to the wild card?

Here we are in September, and we are better off than we were on September 1, 2003 (69-66 going into that day, 2.5 games out of first place).

It sure doesn't feel that way, however, after the Expos blew out the Cubs 8-0 in Montreal, in front of a rather indifferent "throng" of 7,162.

It could be worse. We could be the Yankees, who equalled the 1975 Cubs' record of the worst shutout loss ever, losing 22-0 to Cleveland last night and having seven games shaved off their first-place lead in the last few weeks.

But back to last night's fiasco. There is clearly something wrong with Mark Prior. The crew on "Baseball Tonight" stated it after the game, and watching Prior try to slog his way through 110 pitches and five agonizing innings, it was obvious on just about every other pitch, that he had no idea where the pitch was going. Whether Prior is still being bothered by the Achilles problem, or whether he just didn't have his head on straight yesterday (it wasn't the velocity, it was his command), we won't know till his next start.

The second pitch of the game went, all right -- straight out over CF, a home run by Brad Wilkerson. OK, Wilkerson's a pretty good hitter (it was his 26th homer, and Steve Stone pointed out on the telecast that only five Expos have ever hit 30: Rusty Staub, Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Vladimir Guerrero and Larry Parrish). And then the Cubs could have been out of the inning if Nomar had been able to hold on to one of Michael Barrett's better throws of the year, which would have caught Endy Chavez stealing. But Chavez kicked the ball out of Nomar's glove, and no error was charged, which would have made three of the four first-inning runs unearned.

These are all silly excuses, anyway. One of the four rationalizations I put at the top of this post is absolutely true: The Cubs weren't going to hit Livan Hernandez anyway yesterday, and he's beaten the Cubs like a drum most of his career.

The Expos have changed their rotation for the final game of the series -- ex-Cub Scott Downs, someone the Cubs probably would have hit really hard, will not pitch after all; instead, Tony Armas Jr., who is coming off surgery and hasn't thrown more than five innings in a game in over a month, will face Kerry Wood. The Cubs absolutely must win this game -- losing two of three to a last-place team is simply not acceptable for a contending team at this stage of the season.

Nevertheless -- the Cubs remain tied for the wild-card lead, since the Giants won, and both teams remain half a game ahead of San Diego. I suppose we must count Houston and Florida in the race again, since both won yesterday and both are three games out.

The Cubs can dispatch the Marlins themselves this weekend -- IF the weather cooperates. With Hurricane Frances bearing down on the southeastern USA, MLB executives have actually considered a contingency plan where the Cubs and Marlins would play a doubleheader Friday, then postpone the third game in the series and play a doubleheader in Chicago sometime next weekend (my guess would be on Saturday, and it couldn't be a split DH because the Cubs have reached their limit of 22 regular-season night games), with the Marlins actually being the "home" team and batting last for one of the games.

Also yesterday, the Cubs made two minor acquisitions -- catcher Mike DiFelice from Detroit, and outfielder Ben Grieve from Milwaukee.

DiFelice isn't a very good player and will be here only to provide some flexibility in late-inning situations.

Grieve was once a very good prospect who hasn't hit well in several years. He does hit left-handed, can play the outfield reasonably well, and is clearly here as insurance against the possibility that Todd Hollandsworth really won't play again this year (I suspect Todd won't). Both players are eligible for post-season play, due to MLB's arcane loopholes (if you are on the 40-man roster on Aug. 31, you can replace a player who is on the DL, or something like that) for post-season rosters.

Finally, those of us who are season-ticket holders received our postseason invoices yesterday. Despite the fact that the Cubs have virtually zero chance of winning the Central (the magic number for the Cardinals to clinch is 16) and so would NOT have the home field in any playoff series, we are being required to buy all ten possible postseason dates. Well, the Cubs will just have to be writing a lot of refund checks. Let's hope we get to spend all the rest of the money.

The package also contained a fact sheet which lists the following dates for playoff series in which the Cubs would be involved (Cub home games in bold:

NLDS: Game 1, Oct 5 or 6; Game 2, Oct 7; Game 3, Oct 9; Game 4, Oct 10; Game 5, Oct 11

NLCS: Game 1, Oct 13; Game 2, Oct 14; Game 3, Oct 16; Game 4, Oct 17; Game 5, Oct 18; Game 6, Oct 20; Game 7, Oct 21

WS: Game 1, Oct 23; Game 2, Oct 24; Game 3, Oct 26; Game 4, Oct 27; Game 5, Oct 28; Game 6, Oct 30; Game 7, Oct 31

Yes, that's right: barring rainouts, World Series game 7 will be played on Halloween.