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"It's Not A Save Situation!"

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Those are the words that perhaps should be said to LaTroy Hawkins every time he comes into a game!

Today, Hawkins came in with a four-run ninth-inning lead, not a save situation, and threw an efficient 12-pitch (9-strike), 1-2-3 inning, and the Cubs had a just-what-the-Dusty-ordered 4-0 shutout win over the Brewers, taking the last unbeaten team out of the majors. (Yes, the Brewers, at 3-0, were the final team to register their first loss of 2005.)

Seriously -- Dusty did turn on the psychology, something he's renowned for, and had a long conversation with Hawkins after yesterday's defeat:

"I still believe in LaTroy," Baker said. "He definitely has the stuff. He has to get to that next step of closing it out."

The session was productive, Baker said.

"That's part of my job and part of the process of communicating and expressing myself, as well as them expressing themsleves as to why things happened or didn't happen," Baker said. "I like what we got."

Like Hawkins or not -- and today's assembled multitude of 38,743 clearly didn't, booing him lustily when he trotted in to start the 9th -- it has been a hallmark of Baker's career to stick with his players, tough times or not. And generally when a manager does so, good things happen, and this is why so many players have said that Baker is the manager they most enjoy playing for.

Look, Hawkins is a member of the Cubs. We don't want him to fail. We want and need him to succeed in order for this ballclub to be a contender, since at this moment there isn't a clear other choice (well, you know how I feel about Mike Wuertz, though) to take Hawkins' place until Joe Borowski returns.

So call today a confidence-builder. And also, be glad there was a four-run lead and the wind blowing in, because Junior Spivey's fly to left to end it would have been a 420-foot homer to Waveland Avenue on any other day.

But, it wasn't.

And so, let us turn to the real star of the day, Carlos Zambrano.

Z gave the Cubs exactly what they needed today -- a starter to go deep in to the game. For the first time this year, a Cub starter lasted past the sixth inning, and Z was absolutely spectacular. Russell Branyan hit a clean, no-doubt-about-it, line-drive single to right-center in the 2nd inning.

And that was it. Z walked two, but struck out six and got himself a very well-called strike zone by plate umpire Rick Reed. And when he ran out of gas after 111 pitches, Chad Fox came in and after scaring the heck out of us by running the count to 3-2 on J. J. Hardy (I said to Mike, "This is what he did all spring!"), he got Hardy to ground right to Nomar, who took several precise steps, stepped on second and completed the double play.

Another nice defensive play was turned in by Derrek Lee, when Branyan lined to him just before Z was lifted in the 8th; the ball bounced off Lee's glove and right back in, which Jeff scored "3 3". I said to him, "You'll look at that scorecard a year from now and say, 'What the heck was THAT play?'"

It was that sort of day -- a bit cooler than yesterday due to the high clouds, and the festive atmosphere of Opening Day replaced by the all-business feeling of getting the season in gear. Some of the Cubs have said that the Arizona series felt like extended spring training, and yesterday had pomp and ceremony, so in a way today was really the beginning of the six-month trek to what we hope is the Promised Land.

It was just four of us today -- me, Dave, Jeff and Mike. Phil stood outside for at least half an hour looking for a ticket, and the consensus on our bench was that he could probably have found one if he had been willing to pay a bit above face. I finally told him by phone in the 2nd inning, "Why don't you just go over and buy a standing room ticket, at least see the game, since you're here anyway?"

We'll find out tomorrow if he did that.

The other bench in front of us was populated by various people; two couples sat down early because the woman of one of them had a broken foot, and wanted to get in and out easily; but people in their group kept getting up and down, replaced at one point by a woman who kept insisting, "You can't save seats!" Fortunately, she left after about an inning, never to be seen again.

That wasn't the show today, though. Z was. In addition to his pitching, he contributed two hits, including an RBI single, and scared the living daylights out of us with a head-first slide into third on a subsequent Corey Patterson single. I know what he was doing -- trying to fire up a team that's been pretty unexciting since Monday. In fact, after the first batter there was a mound conference, called by Z himself:

Zambrano stopped the game in the first after striking out leadoff batter Brady Clark. Cubs manager Dusty Baker, trainer Mark O'Neal and the infielders all came out to the mound and all were looking at Zambrano's right forearm. He stayed in the game. Whatever it was apparently wasn't a factor.

Not only wasn't it a factor, Z seemed to get better after the conference. Again, this might have been a fire-someone-up meeting. Z works in strange and mysterious ways at times.

Other stat notes: Jeromy Burnitz became the first Cub to homer at Wrigley Field this year, the 276th of his career, passing Roger Maris' career total, if you're into such comparisons. Burnitz was greeted by loud cheers upon returning to the field after this homer; he tipped his cap again.

T-shirt seen: on the front, "There Was No Curse To Be Reversed" in Red Sox-looking lettering; on the back, "The Red Sox Have Just Sucked For 86 Years".

Finally, tomorrow we'll know if Mark Prior will pitch Tuesday against the Padres. All indications are that his health and stamina are not at issue.

This is big. A drink is at stake, won by either me or Chuck of Ivy Chat, depending on what happens.

Root for me, will you?