Just for one day
-- David Bowie, 1977
I think Neifi! has earned his ! back, don't you?
... at least for one day.
How improbable was Neifi Perez' grand slam that gave the Cubs a 10-inning, 8-4 win over the Cardinals?
- It was on the road, where Neifi is .243/.278/.330 (.608 OPS) lifetime.
- It was at night, where Neifi is .256/.287/.361 (.648) in his career.
- And it was in Busch Stadium, where he has hit .236/.276/.309 (.585) and never had a home run in 109 career at-bats before that one.
Neifi's the beer-league guy. Mark was watching with me and the thing he was most amused at was the fleeting shot -- you may have even missed it -- of the ball nestling into a metal basket of some kind adjacent to the right-field foul pole. Incidentally, Mark's Park District Cardinals were supposed to have another playoff game last night, but it was postponed due to the 102-degree heat we had in Chicago yesterday. Smart move. It was just as hot in St. Louis, but major league players get no such break from the weather.
All of this came after the Cubs tried to give this game to the Cardinals several different times.
It began in the first inning, when the Cubs had runners on first and second with one out and Jeromy Burnitz and Aramis Ramirez at the plate, and Jeff Suppan was way out of the strike zone on nearly every pitch -- except the curveball that bent over the plate for called strike three on Ramirez.
I'd say Aramis made up for this with his two-run homer that gave the Cubs the lead in the 8th inning -- but then he nearly threw the game away in the bottom of the 10th when he slung a routine ground ball over to first in such a way that Derrek Lee had to splay his entire body out flat while keeping his foot on the base, for the final out.
If you didn't see that, there's no first baseman in baseball who makes his infielders look better than Derrek Lee does.
Mark Prior had an improbable inning too -- he'd never allowed either back-to-back homers, or three in an inning, in his entire career. He managed to do both of those things in the first inning last night, each home run longer than the one before. After that, perhaps also improbably, he gave up only one other hit over the rest of his time in the game, five more innings, and that one was an infield single that was his own fault when he failed to cover first base properly on an Abraham Nunez ground ball.
But the Cubs chipped away, again improbably on the bat of Henry Blanco, who homered and had four hits (for only the second time in his career) and drove in the first two Cub runs. In doing so he raised his average to .211 -- only five points under his lifetime average. So don't expect any more of these explosions any time soon.
Blanco also threw out Hector Luna trying to steal second base in the bottom of the ninth to end the game.
Oh, no, wait, he didn't do that, because 2B umpire Phil Cuzzi didn't see Neifi! tag Luna out before his right foot touched second base. And, naturally, Luna then scored the tying run when David Eckstein inside-outed a single to right, and Jeromy Burnitz' throw, a good one, just missed getting Luna. Blanco had blocked the plate, but Luna got his hand in just before Blanco's tag. Props to Luna -- that was a first-rate play.
As the late innings went by, the feeling grew in me that this game bore more significance than just a single win. To take back a game where you pretty much give it away in the first inning, by clawing back and taking a late-inning lead, puts it on one stage. To then blow that lead gives you the gnawing feeling that losing it would cause deep, deep psychological damage on the rest of this season's psyche. And then, to finally win it in the fashion the Cubs did, makes a statement -- a statement that the ballclub is not giving up.
And they won it in improbable fashion. Naturally, after Todd Walker led off the 10th with a double, Lee was intentionally passed -- his fourth walk of the game. Then Burnitz was asked to sacrifice -- for only the second time in the last seven years. The rest of the ballclub should take a lesson from this -- he laid down a perfect bunt.
Naturally again, ARam was given a free pass, loading the bases for Michael Barrett, pinch-hitting for Ryan Dempster -- who had his first blown save since May 11, and this one came from what we feared about Dempster, too many walks. Dempster got two easy outs and then walked Scott Seabol by throwing him four straight sliders after getting him down 0-2. That led to the run-scoring scenario I described above.
Anyway, Barrett struck out but that just set the stage for Neifi!'s heroics.
The importance of last night's win cannot be minimized. First, with Atlanta and Washington both losing yesterday (they remain tied atop the NL East), the Cubs cut the wild-card deficit to 4.5 games, and although they are still fifth in that race, there are five teams (Phillies, Mets, Astros, Cubs, Marlins) within 1.5 games of each other.
Second, the Cubs won a series at Busch Stadium for the first time since Oct. 1-3, 1999, a meaningless series after both clubs were out of the race, and only the second since July 18-20, 1996. They are now 3-2 vs. the Cardinals this season, and of the 11 games remaining, eight are at Wrigley Field. That's something the Cubs must do something about -- win at home. They are the only NL team other than St. Louis who doesn't have a losing road record, but a winning home record is a must if wild-card dreams are to come true.
The wild card is indeed still attainable, if Jim Hendry spends the next few days glued to his cellphone and obtains the bullpen and offensive help needed -- and winning these games against the Cardinals, I'd think, would give them at least a small edge in, dare I dream it, a postseason matchup.
Dream on, Al, you're saying. Well, what's the point of being here if we can't dream big dreams? I didn't have many of them last night, staying up far too late to watch the amazing climax to the game and the series, and then getting up at 3:30 am to come to work.
So, Rich Hill will start tonight, with a roster move to be made before the game. And there's one thing I noticed last night, each time Derrek Lee walked.
He's wearing a blue Cubs Believe bracelet.
If Derrek Lee believes, so should we all.