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I Guess He's OK!

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Mike spent most of the day toward the back of the LF bleacher section where I was sitting; I had offered him a ride after the game and went up to join him just before the bottom of the 9th, so we could position ourselves to get quickly out of the Cell (if you don't do this with a sellout crowd, you can get stuck in some really long lines at some of the ramps).

I used his old line -- just when you think you know everything about this game, it surprises you with something new. That's one of the things I love best about baseball -- every game is unique, every game brings something different, a perspective you hadn't thought of before.

Mark Prior, only thirty days removed from a frightening injury -- and perhaps we'll never know how close it came to be career-ending -- threw what was almost the game of his life, six one-hit innings (71 pitches, and I was sure Dusty would let him go out for the seventh, but I suppose being over-cautious wasn't such a bad idea today), and Jerome Williams and Ryan Dempster finished up with two hitless innings of their own (not before scaring us a little bit with a couple of walks and Williams' first-pitch hit batsman in the 8th), and the Cubs shut out the White Sox 2-0, winning the series and splitting the six 2005 "Crosstown Classic" games.

Here's how significant this was: the White Sox had lost only four series all season prior to this one (in April at Oakland, in May at Tampa Bay, a rain-shortened two-game sweep by the Rangers in Texas, and the only other series loss at home, to the Diamondbacks a couple of weeks ago).

And even more significant -- it was only their second shutout loss of the season. (Thanks to my SportsBLOGS colleague The Cheat of South Side Sox for updating me with the info on the Sox' second shutout loss -- I only found one on first review of their schedule.)

By contrast, it was the Cub pitching staff's sixth shutout of the season and third one-hitter. For the record, the others are April 9 vs. the Brewers, the combined effort that day of Carlos Zambrano (and two guys who aren't even on the team any more, Chad Fox and LaTroy Hawkins), and a 2-1 win over the Dodgers in 10 innings in Los Angeles. The record for such things in a season is five, held by the 1964 Baltimore Orioles.

Prior was outstanding all day long. Mike and I discussed the umpiring crew -- the crew known as the Angel Hernandez crew, which has a reputation as being, well, let's charitably say, not very good. And yesterday I felt the strike zone was all over the place.

Today, with Hernandez himself behind the plate, I thought the zone was called crisply and consistently for both Prior and Jon Garland, who threw a mighty nice game himself. Prior had his fastball working -- the pitch speed meter on the scoreboard had him hitting 92-94 the entire six innings -- and he also floated in a couple of very nice curveballs that the White Sox couldn't handle at all.

Despite the hot and humid weather -- 90 degrees at game time, stickier than it had felt either of the first two games of the series -- the ball was not carrying at all. Derrek Lee hit one in the first inning that looked like it was headed for the Sox bullpen, but it died on the warning track. Paul Konerko returned the favor in the second, hitting one that on most days would have been halfway up the RF seats, but it was caught by Jeromy Burnitz with his back to the wall. And Pablo Ozuna smacked one to deep CF in the sixth that Corey Patterson at first ran back on, but later had to run IN to make the catch.

And despite this, Patterson wound up being the hitting hero -- he was the only one to figure out how to hit a ball out of the ballpark today, a line shot right down the RF line for a homer, barely fair (yes, I know, another solo shot, but at least this one meant something). I had started to think about the fourth inning that the first team to score might win this one, and as it turned out the one run would have been enough. The Cubs added another in the seventh when Konerko couldn't handle a Burnitz smash (I thought it was a tough error -- could have been ruled a hit). Burnitz stole second, which surprised me but not the Sox, who threw over to first several times. He advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on a Todd Walker sac fly.

Hey, the Cubs played OzzieBall for an inning!

Seriously, today they finally figured out how to beat the team that's been the best in baseball so far this year. Here's how, for any other teams reading this (and who knows, maybe for future reference this year -- I can dream, can't I?), as Mike and I discussed in the ninth:

  • Throw strikes and get ahead in the count. Prior did this all day. The only trouble Cub pitchers got into is when Williams and Dempster issued leadoff walks. Fortunately, they then induced DP balls to get out of the trouble.
  • And, keep Scott Podsednik off the bases. Here's how much he has meant to the Sox in the leadoff spot: in 64 games this was only the FOURTH time he had gone 0-for-4.
That's an object lesson for you, Corey Patterson, if you are going to insist on leading off for a while. If you can consistently get on base, good things are going to happen behind you, especially since you have an MVP candidate batting two spots behind -- and he's driven in 64 runs in 74 games despite not really having very good hitters hitting in front of him all year.

Along with so many other members of the Cubs Blog Army, I've been roundly criticizing Corey lately, so let me give him his due today. He tried to bunt his way on in the fourth (after striking out to lead off the game -- even then, he did at least see six pitches), and might have made it except for a slick play by Joe Crede. And after the homer, he drew a four-pitch walk. I turned to Nick the Nice Sox Fan and said, "You have no idea what that means -- he only walks about once a week!"

But if he can have a day like this more often, I think all of us will mute the criticism.

In speaking to Dave before the game, he mentioned hearing Larry Rothschild talk on the radio, and Rothschild's point was that if the Cubs can just hang on until the pitching staff is in order, they ought to be right there when the time comes -- fairly soon, now -- to go out and get some offensive help. The Cardinals blew a 9th-inning lead and lost 5-4 to the Pirates today, cutting their lead to 8.5 games, but catching them is still just a dream.

The wild card isn't. The Cubs remain 2.5 games behind the currently-leading Braves, but all the teams currently in the wild-card hunt have some flaws, including Atlanta -- check one of their box scores if you don't believe me. I actually had to look up a couple of their relievers from yesterday's Atlanta-Baltimore game -- I had never heard of them before.

Prior's statement today has to give a lift to the entire staff. Rich Hill was returned to Iowa today to make room for Prior on the active roster, and that means that Glendon Rusch goes to the bullpen, since Williams, who looks like he's in much better shape (Mike said he bears some physical resemblance to Dontrelle Willis -- I agree, and wish he could only be half that good), will start on Saturday.

Rusch has done a good job starting, but can also play the swingman role well -- similar to what Terry Mulholland did for the 1998 Wild Card Cubs.

There will still be another move made when Kerry Wood is activated on Wednesday.

The Cubs finish interleague play 6-9, not great, but considering they were 4-8, it was a good way to end it (the Cardinals, if you insist on comparing, were 10-5). The Cub/Sox rivalry has actually turned into a good one on the field -- since 1997, each team has had its up and down years, yet the White Sox lead the 48-game series only 25-23. It's been about as even as you can get.

Which is something I know Nick and Jesus the Nice White Sox Fans appreciate as much as I do. On leaving I shook both their hands, gave them both BCB cards (Hi, you guys, if you're here!) and they said, "See you next year."

To which I replied, "How about this: I'll see you out here in October."

Now that's something we can all dream about.