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And no, that title doesn't refer to the magnificent Derrek Lee, who reached base five more times last night (more on this anon).

It's about Glendon Rusch.

I wrote this about Rusch in 2004 -- that without his contributions as a fill-in starter, the Cubs wouldn't have been even as close to the wild card as they were.

He's been perhaps the most important acquisition over the last two years, as Bruce Miles writes in today's Daily Herald. Oh, along with Neifi!

Amazingly enough, in 2005 he's been even better, and capped his remarkable season-to-date with a splendid four-hit shutout, his first CG shutout since 2001, and the Cubs won their seventh straight, 5-0 over the Padres in San Diego -- a place where the Pads have been nearly unbeatable this season. The Cubs have yet to lose in (Corporate Name) Park, having swept a three-game series there last year.

Since May 9 the Cubs have gone 15-6 and now trail the current wild-card leader, Arizona, by only one game (tied in the loss column), and are only 5.5 games back of the Cardinals, after St. Louis lost to the Rockies in Denver (see, the Rockies can win at home!).

How many more good signs do you want? Here are a few:

  • Jeromy Burnitz with three hits, including a two-run double;
  • Todd Walker hitting the longest HR in (Insert-Corporate-Name-Here) Park this year, 418 feet to right-center field;
  • Lee reaching base five times for the second day in a row, raising his batting average to .389.
Let's talk a little bit about that. I happen to like Len Kasper, but he was just plain wrong about Lee's remarkable streak last night. After Lee singled in the ninth inning to reach base for the fifth time, Len said:
He's had eight straight hits!

Well, no he hasn't. Here's the sequence, starting with Wednesday's game:

Hit-hit-hit-hit-hit-walk-walk-hit-hit-hit

No matter how you slice that, it's not eight straight hits. It IS ten straight times reaching base, which is pretty impressive. The NL record for such things is 15, held by Barry Bonds and John Olerud, and the major league record is 16, held by Ted Williams.

The key to this game was the first inning, even though the Cubs didn't score in it. Why is that? Because they took pitches, and forced Padres rookie starter Tim Stauffer to throw thirty pitches in that first inning.

This is something that good teams do. They work the count. They make the opponent's pitcher show his entire repertoire early, so that everyone in the lineup can see how he works hitters. That not only tires the pitcher out, but it can lead to walks -- which it did when Lee walked in the first -- and eventually, some of those walks are going to score, as Lee did after a third-inning walk (and a Rusch double -- Rusch, a good hitter, also walked and is hitting a decent .188 this year).

Why it took nearly a third of the season for the ballclub to figure this out when all of us knew it all along, I'll never know. But I'm happy to be along for the ride.

With the game humming along, I actually managed to stay up to see the end of it at 11:30 CT, and I was glad I did, because Rusch pulled off an absolutely unconscious play for the first out of the bottom of the ninth. If you didn't see it, he did a no-look, behind-the-back stab of Geoff Blum's grounder up the middle, turning it into an easy 1-3 putout.

And now having pitched 55 innings, three more innings than the number of games the Cubs have played, he qualifies for the ERA leaderboard -- fourth in the NL at 1.96, behind Roger Clemens, Mike Hampton and Dontrelle Willis, pretty good company.

He also leads the ballclub in wins with five. Maybe he threw a few too many pitches with 122 -- but at no time did he appear to be laboring, and like Carlos Zambrano, Rusch appears to be the sort of guy who can handle this workload. One thing he had had trouble with earlier in the year, walking people, wasn't a problem last night. He didn't walk anyone till the ninth inning, when the game was firmly in hand.

With wins in the first four games of this road trip, the Cubs have assured themselves of a winning road trip. When this series first loomed earlier this week, I thought I'd be happy with a split, the way the Padres have been playing.

No more. Now I'm getting greedy. I want the Cubs to win two of the remaining three.

Championship teams do that sort of thing, you know.