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If This Is It...

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... and let me make it clear, I absolutely, positively think it is NOT...

then Greg Maddux has put the coda on a wonderful career as a Chicago Cub with a masterful six-inning, one-run performance, helping lead the Cubs to 4-2 win over the Cardinals this hot and sticky afternoon, made hotter and stickier by yet another Ryan "I'm Sure Glad We Had A Three-Run Lead" Dempster save.

He was good enough today to get TWO warm standing ovations, one for executing a perfect sacrifice bunt (are you listening, other Cub pitchers?), and then again when he was removed after allowing a leadoff double to Scott Rolen in the 7th inning.

Again, despite the fact that Maddux has "approved" a trade, this doesn't mean that Jim Hendry will or even should trade him.

You have to have a willing partner to trade, and you also have to not just give a player of Maddux' stature away. I don't want the Cubs to get two more A-ball pitchers who we'll all forget about in two years if they trade away a guy who's going to be in the Hall of Fame in a few years. I'd like some right-now help for the major league club, and some next-year-ready help, too.

Unfortunately, that's not what other teams are likely going to be offering. The Dodgers have been mentioned as a destination. Has anyone noticed that the Dodgers are seven games under .500 in last place, and sixth in the wild-card standings? Are they even a buyer?

It says here that Maddux isn't going anywhere by Monday. Further, I don't think he'll clear waivers, either, so he won't be able to be dealt during August.

Forget about all of that for one day and remember Greg Maddux the way he was back in the late 80's and early 90's for the Cubs, for he threw with that vintage today, even while breaking 85 MPH only a couple of times -- and this, of course, is why he occasionally gets hit really, really hard. Maddux has always won with location, location, location -- and in the first inning, he just missed with a breaking pitch to Albert Pujols, and the very next pitch was slapped for a base hit; a stolen base and another hit later, the Cardinals had a run.

But that was all. Maddux shut them down for the next five innings, giving up only a third-inning infield single to So Taguchi -- one that he himself couldn't quite handle, and I don't blame him for that; it was a rocket that the fast Taguchi was able to beat out before Maddux could pick it up.

And then the Cardinals -- who look like a team from another planet these last three days -- made yet another in the series of blunders that make even a Cub fan's jaw drop and wonder where they learned the game. Pujols hit a line drive to right that Jacque Jones made a nice diving catch on, rolling over for effect.

OK, fine, we thought -- two out, runner on first. Then I looked up and Maddux had thrown to second base; Neifi Perez stepped on the base and the Cubs ran off the field and Mike & I looked at each other in puzzlement until I figured out the only possibility -- that Taguchi had rounded second on the hit, and then failed to retouch it returning to first.

I don't think I've ever seen a major league player ruled out on such an appeal before -- and credit has to go to Maddux and Perez for keeping a close eye on Taguchi.

And you think Neifi isn't "into the game".

The Cardinals had played "circus people" when the Cubs were batting in the bottom of the second, too. First, with John Mabry on second and Angel Pagan on first, Ronny Cedeno blooped a single to right field. Mabry held up between third and home, but Pagan ran through a stop sign. Oops, more bad Cub baserunning, right? Yes, but the Cardinals decided to play on Pagan at third, and while Rolen was busily trying to tag him out (and failing), Yadier Molina was jumping up and down and yelling that Mabry was running home; Rolen never even turned around, and Mabry scored.

Never seen THAT on a major league field before, either.

After that, Anthony Reyes picked Cedeno off first base. Bad again, right?

Yes, but Cedeno had the presence of mind to hold the Cardinal infielders in a rundown long enough for Pagan to break for, and steal, home -- both runners were safe, the first Cub steal of home since a similar double steal involving Michael Tucker and Ricky Gutierrez in San Francisco on August 10, 2001.

Then, on a Juan Pierre single, Cedeno tried to score (Mike & I said, sure, what the heck!) and tried to Pierzynski-ize Yadier Molina, but was tagged out... he'd have been safe if he had just gone in on a straight line, because the throw was off line.

And the Cardinals are in first place? How? They look lost, defeated, confused, beaten, every time they take the field against the Cubs. Only Ryan Dempster's high-wire act in the ninth inning made it close. I said to Mike that this outing would show us a lot, because it's been my contention that more frequent work for a closer makes him sharper.

OK, so maybe three days in a row isn't the best thing for any reliever, much less a closer. Bob Howry finally got up after Dempster let a run in and loaded the bases, but he K'd Aaron Miles to end it. Had Miles gotten on, Howry would have come in. The rest of the bullpen (Michael Wuertz, Scott Eyre) did a fine job getting it to Dempster today, and the Cubs added just enough "insurance runs" (this time, they really WERE insurance runs, in the true baseball definition) to give Dempster a cushion.

Today, Mike, Phil & I were joined by Jim McArdle, who works for Vine Line. No, I didn't spend the entire game sucking up. He brought three friends and just wanted to spend some time hanging out with us in the bleachers. I mention this only to tell this anecdote: Jim's friend Hillary, who is from Florida, looked up at the scoreboard and saw this on the AL side:

13 TAMPA BAY
 5 NEW YORK
and thought that was the final score. She had no idea, and it had to be explained, that those were the "pitcher numbers" as listed in the scorecard (Jae Seo for Tampa Bay, Randy Johnson for New York, if you care).

But darned if Tampa Bay didn't start scoring at will off Johnson -- by the sixth inning it was 11-5 and we were all saying that it might indeed wind up 13-5 and if it had, I would have been asking her for tonight's winning lottery numbers. Close, but no proverbial cigar -- the Rays beat the Yankees 19-6 (it did tie the Tampa Bay team record for runs in a game).

We can afford to yuk it up like that -- a little, at least, after beating the team that's supposed to be the best in the NL Central three in a row. Man, the NL playoffs are going to be a joke this year... the five best teams in baseball (maybe even six) are all in the American League.