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Dave and Phil and I got into a spirited discussion of what's going to happen in the next couple of weeks before the trading deadline.

First, Dave told me I was foolish for thinking Matt Murton is the answer in left field. I was, in fact, surprised to see him batting fifth today. Frankly, I KNOW Murton's not the answer to all our problems right now and told Dave so (and Murton promptly went out and proved me right by going 0-for-4), and I still think the way to go is to try to pry Adam Dunn away from the Reds. I told Dave, as I've posted here, that I'd trade anyone except Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee for Dunn, and I mean anyone else.

To which Phil chimed in, "Rich Hill?" Dave roared with laughter.

That's when we tried to explain to Phil, who would love to see the Cubs play everyone in their farm system, that he's been overrating every Cub farmhand, prospect or no, for years: from Derrick May to Ozzie Timmons to Bobby Hill to pitchers like Ruben Quevedo and Juan Cruz.

The point is -- if you can get a team like the Reds enamored of that nice curveball that Hill has, and send him and a couple others (yes, even including Corey Patterson) to the Reds and get a major talent like Dunn, you do it, and sooner rather than later.

Phil, who also thinks he could have managed the Cubs to a 10-game better record than they have right now (don't worry, he says this every year), thinks Dusty Baker will be fired soon.

Dave, however, agrees with me: that the Cubs are about to go on a tear, and that within a few weeks Baker will be given a contract extension.

Meanwhile, Jeff kept getting up either to go to the men's room, or to pay off the daily bet he makes on the scoreboard tractor race (yes, believe it or not, people actually do this), so I kept having to show him my scorecard so he could score the plays he missed.

So that's how we spent our first afternoon back at the Yard after 11 days off; oh, and also the Cubs beat the Pirates 5-1, their fourth win in a row, getting back to the .500 mark.

Speaking of Mark, Prior was magnificent today. He struck out ten, though was a bit wild with three walks and a lot of long counts, and I know there will be some who will say that he shouldn't have been left in for 115 pitches.

But it wasn't too hot today -- the game-time temp was reported at the ballpark as 85, but in the boxscore as 77, and the wind was blowing stiffly off the lake, and Prior didn't seem to be laboring at any time, so I don't have a problem with the eight innings he threw. The wind, incidentally, knocked down a Neifi Perez hit that would have been on Waveland Avenue on any other day -- Craig Wilson, attempting to play LF for the Pirates, tried to surround the ball but it dropped for a double, and Perez eventually scored...

because Henry Blanco changed numbers.

Blanco, who has worn #9 all year, switched to #24 (apparently, he wears that number in Caribbean winter ball and considers it lucky), and had two doubles -- after the second one, he clapped his hands merrily on second base -- and as I pointed out to Dave, Blanco may not be a great hitter but his lifetime average is .216. Since he hit only .158 in the first half, he'll have to hit .270 or so in the second to get his average up to lifetime levels, and he is a terrific defensive catcher who calls a good game. Since he's going to catch at least once, and maybe twice, a week, this is good news.

There's something else to consider here: the Cubs generally reserve uniform numbers for minor leaguers who are on the 40-man roster. #24 has been worn for a couple of years in the spring, and for brief callups, by David Kelton. Perhaps this may presage a trade involving Kelton?

The Pirates are a really bad team and it showed today. Mark Redman, who has dominated the Cubs in his career but sucked in his last four starts, made it five in a row by getting behind nearly every hitter he faced (he threw 84 pitches in four innings, a ridiculous number). He only walked one (and the Cubs had only three walks today), but the deep counts, as they did in Miami last week, allowed Cub hitters to get pitches they liked -- and wasn't it nice to see the bottom of the order do the offensive damage today? Even Prior chimed in with two hits and an RBI and is now hitting .273.

This is how a team wins -- on a day when Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez had only one hit apiece, the rest of the offense comes through, including Todd Walker, who lined a ball through the wind into the first row in the RF corner below us for a two-run homer that gave the Cubs the lead for good.

These are the teams you have to beat, and while I am not trying to make excuses, the Cubs did have a very difficult schedule for the last six weeks or so. For the rest of this month they will play only three games -- the three in St. Louis -- against anyone with a winning record. The Pirates, Reds, Giants, Diamondbacks -- these are the clubs that you must feast on if you are going to be a contender, not a pretender.

As I told Dave -- I still believe Jim Hendry is going to make a splashy, big move before the trading deadline, and that I'd reserve judgment about the rest of this season until then. Before that he was laughing at me for not giving up.

Well, I'm NOT giving up. It's not in my nature as a fan, and all of your posts on what being a Cub fan means to you, shows me that you're right there with me.

That said, I will not be in attendance at the ballpark tomorrow or Saturday. You're gasping, I know. Why is this? Because I must travel to New York, as I did in May, for a meeting of the Eastern Directors Council of the Directors Guild of America, on which I have served since 1999 (except for a year's break in 2003). Sure, I'd have rather had the meeting be next weekend, but they don't ask me, they tell me.

So -- if any of you are going to be at the ballpark tomorrow or Saturday, I'd encourage you to post a diary about your experience here. I'll still make a daily game post, and tomorrow, luckily for me, the game is on ESPN, so I'll get a chance to see some of it -- then, I'll probably go take in the Mets/Braves game at Shea Stadium, featuring an interesting pitching matchup, Glavine vs. Smoltz.

Since 1997, when I began attending games on a daily basis, I have missed exactly two home games in two years:

1998 and 2003.

Draw your own conclusions.