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And Then, They Rested

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And all I could think about as the Cubs were dismantling the Marlins 9-2 this afternoon, sweeping the series, was...

why... couldn't... they... have... done... this... the... LAST... time... they... played... three... games... in... Florida...

(That, of course, was in October 2003. I'm sure you remember the details. The Cubs wound up playing only two games in Miami last year due to Hurricane Ivan.)

I keep saying this, but I think it hasn't totally gotten through to some out there. Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. The Cubs enter the All-Star break one game under .500 at 43-44. With Milwaukee's win over Atlanta today, the Cubs stand six games out of the wild-card lead (five in the loss column).

To me, this means in the next three weeks, the team should still be out there looking for a power bat to play left field, as well as bullpen help. Getting a power hitter (Adam Dunn! Adam Dunn!) would prevent silly things like Dusty Baker saying he couldn't sit Todd Hollandsworth for a week, so he had to start him today.

Gee, Dusty -- think that was a good idea after he went 0-for-5? Fortunately, Holly was the only starter who didn't have a hit today -- the rest of the ballclub had thirteen of them, and NINE WALKS, and that made for an easy victory.

Bob Brenly said it best, in the middle innings, when he was talking about how Al Leiter kept getting behind in the count, thus giving Cub hitters good pitches to be aggressive on.

Bingo! This is what aggressive hitting is all about -- not being hackamatic on the first pitch, but making the pitcher throw you your pitch, and that's what the Cubs did all day today.

Even Greg Maddux, who threw wonderfully for eight innings, got into the mix with two singles (and he ought to have had a third -- replays clearly showed Juan Pierre trapping his popup in the second, and I'm guessing minor league replacement umpire Casey Moser, who made the call, isn't going to be asked back anytime soon). I was hoping that Maddux would finish the game for what would have been his first CG and shutout of the year, but Greg knows himself pretty well, and at 98 pitches in hot, humid conditions, he must have taken himself out of the game.

Unfortunately, Glendon Rusch got hit hard by the first two batters he faced, for a double and a Carlos Delgado homer, and then he finished up uneventfully. I have noticed this is a pattern for Rusch in his relief appearances, not his starts -- he tends to get bounced around early, then settles down. It's quite the opposite when he's starting. If someone (Helloooooo, Larry Rothschild!) could identify the reasons for this, Rusch would be a much better reliever. I was actually surprised that Jerome Williams didn't throw the 9th, as he was seen warming up earlier.

No matter, as the game was well in hand by then. Everyone hit; Jerry Hairston, who doesn't look quite as lost in center field as he did in spring training, reached base and scored twice. Neifi Perez got his average back up to .264 with three hits. And Matt Murton, who sat on the bench due to Dusty's eccentric lineup selection, drew a walk and scored as a pinch-hitter.

But let's focus on the wonderful, marvelous Derrek Lee. He smashed his 27th homer and also his 27th double, driving in four runs. With his two triples he has fifty-six extra-base hits -- or as the record books call them, "long hits", and I mention this because on this pace, he has a chance to have over 100 of such things this year, a rare feat, in addition to all the other things he's accomplished in what very well could be an MVP season.

Len and Bob discussed "first-half MVP's", and I'm not going to get into an extended rant over that, only to say that I agree with Brenly, who said that although Albert Pujols has had a statistical first half close to Lee's, the Cardinals would probably be just about where they are without him, while the Cubs, in Brenly's words, "wouldn't be anywhere near .500 without Derrek Lee."

That, to me, is the definition of "Most Valuable". Lee's 4 RBI gave him 72, and the other Lee, Carlos, had two today, giving him 76 at the break. So Derrek goes into the break leading in batting average at .376, tied for first in HR with Andruw Jones, and second in RBI. Can he win the Triple Crown?

Given the fact that Derrek's hitting more than 100 points over his lifetime average (and has raised it nine points since the season began, a remarkable jump), I'd tend to say no -- but maybe this is the career year of all career years.

One thing he can shoot for if the batting average holds up is the Cubs' team single season record, which is .380, set in 1929 by Rogers Hornsby. Oh, incidentally, the Cubs won the NL pennant that year.

Fun moment -- hearing a Marlins fan, who must have been sitting right next to WGN's field mike, in the fourth inning, when Leiter was missing the strike zone more than he was hitting it, and had run the count to 3-2 on Hairston, say:

Come ON! It's JERRY HAIRSTON!!
in very sarcastic tones. Leiter wound up walking Hairston, and was yanked one batter later after a Delgado error, for someone whose name sounds like his parents spelled it backwards, Chris Resop.

Guys like that, and another couple of Marlins relievers today -- Randy Messenger and Valerio de los Santos -- remind me, and should remind you, of this:

Every single one of the wild-card contenders in the National League, and that includes the Braves, is flawed in several ways. Look -- after sweeping the Cubs, the Braves lost two of three to the Brewers. Atlanta looks forward to getting Chipper Jones, Mike Hampton and John Thomson back from the DL after the break. Well, the Cubs looked forward to getting Mark Prior and Kerry Wood back -- and promptly started an eight-game losing streak after they were both healthy. Who's to say that the Braves might not start losing again after they get all their regulars back?

This year's NL wild card can probably be had with ninety wins. That would mean the Cubs must go 47-28 in the 75 games remaining to take it. That's a far better percentage than they've played to so far, but it's not impossible to accomplish, and remember this -- Dusty Baker teams always play well in September. Yes, even the 2004 team, which wound up with that horrendous last week, was 16-11 in September (17-13 if you include the three games in October).

The schedule, as Shawn points out in his diary today, does get a bit easier for the next few weeks -- yes, except for the games against the Cardinals, but the Cubs are going to have to beat them eventually if they want this season to end successfully, so why not now?

And, there has finally been a target date set for Nomar Garciaparra's return -- August 1, which is just about what everyone was tossing around when he was first injured, considering the type and severity of the injury. Getting Nomar back, and presuming he hits like he did in March and not April, is tantamount to making a major hitting acquisition.

Now, it's up to Jim Hendry to get the help -- hitting and bullpen -- we've been crying out for. The pitching rotation is set and healthy -- it will go as follows after the break:

Thursday: Mark Prior
Friday: Kerry Wood
Saturday: Greg Maddux
Sunday: Carlos Zambrano
Monday: Jerome Williams
Anyway, the Cubs, except for the All-Star-bound Lee and Aramis Ramirez (who also had two hits today and showed no ill effects from fouling a ball off his foot yesterday), will disperse till Thursday at Wrigley Field. Don't YOU disperse -- I'll be posting through the break, and of course you are all invited to write diaries or comments with your own thoughts on the first half.

Whatever you do, don't give up. The best is yet to come.