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A Single Step

The Cubs beat the Expos convincingly today, 9-1.

Good! Now go out and do it again tomorrow.

This is, as we all agreed on leaving the park today, exactly how the Cubs must focus on the twenty-eight remaining games. One at a time, win them, and beat the teams that you must beat, like Montreal, convincingly. Today's win puts the Cubs back in first by themselves, half a game in front of the Giants, who had the day off.

The ballclub came out after four days off like a team on a mission, smacking two home runs (Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez) in the first inning, which was the "bounce" inning for today's Tomato Drop -- it actually dropped in the fourth and then landed right in Ramirez' square in the first. So Tomato Power is back, and the Cubs took advantage of the early-game humidity and southwest wind to score seven early runs off Tony Armas, Jr., who had handled them so well five days ago in Montreal.

The sky was low and threatening when the ballpark opened, and Phil and I sat through a couple of spitty little showers, but with the sun peeking through the dark clouds, we knew the rain wouldn't last too long, and the two of us held on to seats for... well, for Howard's entire family, basically, and when I say entire, I mean entire... not only his wife Marilyn and daughter Nora, but his sons Jon and Mark and Jon and Mark's mother (Howard's ex-wife), who I'd met many years ago when Jon and I used to share a bench when he was still in high school, for heaven's sake, and a sister-in-law? -- I wasn't sure, they were introduced to me and they seemed nice, but they were pretty quiet, and a nephew who could be the next Harry Potter if they chose to cast an American in the role, nine people in all, nearly all of them keeping score (except Mark, who got really excited when I told him that the Giants were playing in Milwaukee next week; he's a Brewers fan from way back and was happy that the Brew Crew could help the Cubs out in the wild-card chase), and it was a festive afternoon on what appears to be summer's last gasp.

It almost seemed to let go right in the middle of the game, when the skies started to clear and the late-afternoon sun, which in September makes it really hard to pick up the ball from our perch in right field, because it's nearly right in our eyes after about 4:30, and the wind shifted out of the northwest and there was a definite hint of the fall to come in the air; I suppose tomorrow will be almost cool for the evening affair with Les Expos.

Before the game the Cubs honored some surviving stars of the Negro Leagues, including Chicago resident Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe (so named because he used to catch one end of a DH and pitch the other), who is perhaps the oldest surviving Negro League star at age 102 -- he lives near the Cell and attends quite a few games there. The Cubs also had one of the nicer giveaways of the year, a very well-made, red-and-white replica cap of one of the best Negro League teams, the Kansas City Monarchs, the team on which Ernie Banks started his fabled career.

I remarked to Mike on hearing the first strains of the Canadian national anthem, that it's likely that Wednesday will be the last time we'll hear that song played at Wrigley Field -- except that I have learned that the Blue Jays are going to be visiting the Cubs next year as one of the interleague opponents, at least on the draft schedule that's yet to be approved, and partly because of all the dithering about the Expos franchise, which if MLB's poohbahs had an ounce of sense, they'd just move them to Washington already, and let Peter Angelos' chips fall where they may. It might be uncomfortable, but it can't be worse than letting these poor players spend another year in limbo, or playing half a year in the Caribbean, and drawing 9,000 per game.

That, however, is another story. Today, it was all Cubs, and though I usually complain about too many homers and not enough other hits, with the wind blowing the way it was, it was absolutely the day to hit five homers, and Carlos Zambrano managed to keep the ball down enough to allow only four hits and a consolation run to the Expos in his eight innings; he almost seems as if he insists on stretching himself out to reach 120 pitches, and he just barely missed (119). That's not so bad, considering he hadn't thrown in nine days, and Ryan Dempster finished up handily, saving the bullpen for another day.

With the game well in hand, Dusty emptied the newly-fortified bench. The callups included Neifi Perez, Sergio Mitre and Calvin Murray, along with the recently-acquired Mike DiFelice and Ben Grieve, all of whom played this afternoon. The only starter who played the whole game was Mark Grudzielanek (my scorecard resembled an early-March spring training card with all the changes and not-listed-on-the-roster players), and Dusty gave Todd Walker a couple of innings at first base, which is a good thing, increasing his versatility. The only person who had a bad day was Wayne Messmer, who, though he has a terrific voice, cannot seem to handle double-switches or lineup position changes -- he made mistakes for both teams, something that the night/weekend PA guy, Paul Friedman, never does.

Grieve started in place of Sammy Sosa today -- Sammy has some sort of hip injury, which he didn't have before the enforced layoff -- or did he? Something like this could easily explain why he hasn't hit much in over a month. Grieve made a nice running catch right below us against the wall in RF in the fifth inning, only to scrape his face on the brick wall and have to leave the game.

There is still no definitive word on when the rained-out weekend series will be rescheduled, though a clue was given by the Marlins today when they announced that their Thursday game with the Mets is being moved up two hours, and will start at 1:05 ET instead of 3:05, ostensible reason: to give the Marlins extra time to get to Chicago early, for a possible doubleheader here on Friday. MLB, which was to announce plans today, apparently cannot be reached on a holiday, so we now expect an announcement tomorrow.

Finally today, congratulations to Dave on his Rockford Riverhawks winning their first-round playoff series and advancing to the Frontier League championship series against Evansville, to begin tomorrow in Evansville. If you want to see a talented team at the minor league level play in games that really mean something and you're anywhere near Rockford, I'd highly recommend taking in game 3 of their series, Friday night in Rockford. You can get more info on the Riverhawks website, link above.

For the Cubs, it's absolutely crunch time. A sweep of the Expos is nearly mandatory, and with two of their weaker pitchers going the next two days, is within reach.

Faith and hope, all.