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Whose Team Is This, Anyway?

Jerome Williams walked the first man he faced and the last man he faced last night.

In between those two at-bats he pitched just about as lights-out as the guy I first saw in the 2002 Arizona Fall League, the guy I thought was the best pitching prospect I ever saw.

Williams gave up just three hits -- singles to Marcus Giles (who advanced on an error) and Johnny Estrada, and a booming solo homer, his fortieth, to Andruw Jones (which broke up a no-hitter in the fifth), but that was it; he also had a single and a double, and the Cubs won their first laugher in a while, 10-1 over the Braves, their first win over Atlanta in six tries in 2005.

Williams was finally pulled after that eighth-inning walk, his third of the night, and 112 pitches, to a loud ovation, and I have to tell you, lost season or no, it was nice to feel the old ballpark ring with justified cheers.

And why did all these good things happen?

Well, we gave credit to Ken from Die-Hard Cubs Fun, who brought his wife and four other friends, including a nice young couple from Japan who were attending their first-ever game at Wrigley Field. The man of the couple introduced himself as Ichiro -- no, not this one, wiseguy -- and with the win, we told them they absolutely, positively had to return every day for the rest of the season.

Everyone laughed, including Mike, who had called before the game to say he was stuck at work and would be "late, if at all." I started to worry for him in the third, when Williams had set the Braves down with no hits -- Mike & I agreed long ago that no no-hitter should be permitted to be thrown in Chicago unless at least one of us is present, and no perfect game unless both of us are present, but he arrived in the last of the third, I got him caught up scorecard-wise, and Williams absolutely, positively had no-hitter stuff, notwithstanding the Jones home run, which provoked more laughter when no fewer than three throwback balls landed on the field from Sheffield Avenue after it was launched.

As noted above, Williams didn't start the game that way. The first five pitches he threw were out of the strike zone, but he got Marcus Giles to fly to right after a stolen base, and then came the play that I believe turned the game the Cubs' way. Chipper Jones hit a screaming line drive that Williams stuck his glove at and somehow caught.

He turned to see Rafael Furcal standing between second and third, and you could tell Furcal was thinking, "Why aren't the Cubs running after the base hit, to make a play on me?" Then you could see him think further, "Oops! Guess he caught it!", and Williams made the easy flip to Neifi to double Furcal off second.

After that, Williams turned into super-pitcher, not only retiring nearly everyone, but hitting a single and a double, raising his batting average 84 points (from .059 to .143), and joining in on a fun night where every Cub in the starting lineup had a hit, and Jeromy Burnitz nearly had an historic night.

With the score already 4-0 Cubs, Burnitz came up with the bases loaded in the fourth, two batters after the Cubs had chased Atlanta starter John Thomson. The Braves called in a reliever named Joey Devine, who had just been called up a few days ago, not listed in the scorecard, and that provoked a "Waking Joey Devine" remark from Jeff. Devine wasn't -- he gave up a double to Derrek Lee and walked Aramis Ramirez, and Burnitz deposited a ball in the CF juniper bushes into the teeth of a pretty strong wind for a grand slam, putting the game essentially out of reach.

Devine has now made two major league appearances and allowed a grand slam in both of them. If that's not a record, it ought to be.

Burnitz came up in the bottom of the eighth with the bases loaded again; had he hit another grand slam, he'd have accomplished two feats with one swing:

  • broken the club record for RBI, with nine;
  • become the 14th player to hit two grand slams in a game.
Oh, well. Burnitz ran the count to 3-0, looked at two very hittable strikes, then struck out.

That's about the only thing that went wrong last night. It got so out-of-hand that we spent a fair amount of time watching, by scoreboard and my web cellphone, the White Sox both go late into the game with, and then blow, a Freddy Garcia no-hitter, which, along with their game, was lost 1-0 on a Jacque Jones solo homer, the only hit the Twins got off Garcia. At one time there were rumors that the Cubs wanted to acquire Jones before the trading deadline.

This is, indeed, a maddening team. Are they the team that lost two of three to the Rockies? Or the team from last night, that dispatched a division leader with ease? Mike & I often say that this is the sign of a classic .500 ballclub, which plays up or down to the level of its opponent, and that may very well be true; the Cubs appear to be headed, if they can make a decent run of the last five and a half weeks, for a finish within four or five games of .500 either way.

I was most interested to see Jerry Hairston inserted into the starting lineup in CF against a right-handed pitcher, Thomson. Does this spell the end for Corey Patterson as a starter? And Nomar may be headed back to the DL with back problems, which were aggravated, apparently, when Julian Tavarez hit him in the back with a pitch twelve days ago. If this happens, perhaps this will result in a little playing time for Ronny Cedeno, who would likely be recalled for a Nomar DL placement.

We were all feeling so good about this game that when Julio Franco came up to pinch-hit in the ninth inning, on his forty-seventh birthday, we were actually rooting for him to hit a home run. Franco's homered nine times this year, but his next one will set a major league record: he'll become the oldest player in ML history to hit a homer. He tried -- but struck out.

Know how old Franco is? In his rookie year, 1982, among his teammates were Pete Rose, Bill Robinson and Ron Reed, all of whom are now in their mid-60's. Franco's older than Ryne Sandberg, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame last month, and only a couple of months younger than Wade Boggs, the other HoF inductee. Makes me feel a bit younger, anyway, knowing Franco is still playing and contributing, to a contending team.

Finally, once again, at least at this writing, the Cubs website shows ticket availability at nearly every price level for today's game; had you checked a week ago you'd have been told "The ticketing system indicates that there are currently no tickets available" for today. No doubt, this means that the Cubs haven't been able to sell many (or any) tickets for this afternoon through their ticket brokerage, so they have returned the tickets to the regular box office channels. Hopefully, the federal courts will soon put an end to this distasteful practice.

In any case, regardless of whether it ultimately means anything or not, it's nice to see a blowout win, to see players in blue pinstripes (or even those ugly blue tops) play up to their potential, and to have fun and laughter at the ballpark with friends old and new.