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Here's Why I Like Neifi Perez

There are some things that happen on a baseball field that simply cannot be measured in a stat line.

One of them is the value of a player being able to assess the situation on the field and keep a potential crisis from becoming worse.

That's what Neifi Perez did for the Cubs tonight, and it won't show up in any box score, but Steve Stone picked up on it on the telecast, and in addition to the very real offensive contributions that Perez has made in his two weeks on the roster, he may have helped prevent a Carlos Zambrano meltdown.

Situation: third inning, scoreless game, runner on first, and Z lost Felipe Lopez to a walk on a pitch that was a hair inside and that he thought that plate umpire Andy Fletcher jobbed him on.

Perez immediately came over to Z, who can implode, or maybe even explode, at a moment's notice, and said something to him that must have calmed him down, because two pitches later, Sean Casey hit a soft line drive right to Mark Grudzielanek, and the Cubs were out of the inning.

Depending on the health status of Nomar Garciaparra, I'd think the Cubs ought to try to find a way to get Neifi onto the postseason roster, and even though he wasn't recalled till September 1, teams do this all the time, with the available loopholes. I don't want to disparage Nomar either, but the Cubs are now 5-1 without him this week. Perez had an RBI double too. He's not a great player, but he's contributing in both tangible and intangible ways.

I'll never forget the last day of the 1998 regular season, September 27, when the Cubs and Giants began the day tied for the wild-card, and I was watching the game with some bleacher friends in a bar near Wrigley Field. The Cubs had blown a 3-1 lead and lost to Houston 4-3 in 11 innings -- and we turned around to another TV showing the Rockies/Giants game, just in time to see Neifi hit a bottom-of-the-ninth homer and the Rockies came from 7-0 down to beat the Giants 9-8.

I walked out of the bar to the amazing sight of literally hundreds of people running down Clark and Addison Streets toward the box office to line up for tickets to the wild-card tiebreaker game the next day.

At that game there were several signs reading "Neifi Perez for President". There must be some magical connection between Neifi and the Cubs and now it's working on our side.

Anyway, tonight the rest of the offense worked the magic it's been on for the last week -- today's offensive hero, Derrek Lee, had his turn for a 5-RBI night, and the Cubs took advantage of the mediocre Reds pitching staff, blowing them out 12-4, (even after the bullpen gave the Reds some late consolation runs), winning their fifth in a row behind a crowd that seemed almost two-thirds Cub partisan, and I'd expect the same, if not even more, tomorrow and Sunday.

Z got in on the offensive fun himself, hitting his third career homer. It was also his first of the season, and third this year (Wood and Rusch the others) by a Cub pitcher. Z is now a .192 lifetime hitter with seven doubles and three homers in 172 career at-bats (including tonight), not to mention the seven strong innings he threw, and he definitely got stronger after Perez' conference with him in the third. He threw a typical 112 pitches, allowed six hits and only one run, a Sean Casey homer when the game was already well in hand at 7-0.

Everyone got into the act, including Ben Grieve, who pinch-hit for Z in the eighth, smacking a two-run double (his first RBI as a Cub) and then a homer in the ninth after staying in the game, and also Todd Walker, who drove in a run as a pinch-hitter -- this is a good sign, as Walker had been only 3-for-23 as a pinch-hitter before tonight.

Sergio Mitre, who came to the mound sporting a new short haircut tonight, finished the ninth uneventfully. Maybe that's been his problem -- his hair's been too long.

Tomorrow, Greg Maddux goes for his fifteenth win, and if he gets it he will establish a new major league record, as it would be the seventeenth consecutive season he's had fifteen or more wins.

At last, this ballclub appears to be the team we thought we'd have on the field on Opening day, and not a moment too soon. Keep the faith.