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Cubs Find Favorite Punching Bag Ready And Waiting, Beat Pirates 3-1

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NOTE FROM AL: Due to the quick game last night, this recap was actually posted at 8:35 pm Monday... I've moved it to the top of the front page this morning, for those who weren't online Monday night. (This is why it refers to "today" and the other games still in progress.)

Last year, the Cubs were 14-4 against the Pirates -- 7-2 at Wrigley Field, and 7-2 at PNC Park.

Thanks to the wacky schedules that we are now forced to become used to in major league baseball, the Cubs, who had played the Pirates 12 times by this calendar date in 2008, had faced them for only one series so far this year before Monday night -- winning two of three at Wrigley Field in late May. Today marked the Cubs' first visit to PNC Park this year; they had done so twice by the end of May, 2008.

Maybe this is what the Cubs needed -- a reminder of where they did well in the past. They sure looked like the Cubs of 2008 in an efficient 3-1 win over the Pirates, starting the final leg of a so-far-unsuccessful 1-6 road trip with a victory.

Thanks to the fast win, this will be a fast recap.

This is how Cubs teams won a year ago -- timely hitting, the occasional home run, good defense and solid pitching. Rich Harden, who got hit pretty hard in his last two starts, was nearly unhittable Monday. He scattered nine hits -- eight singles and a double, threw strikes (65 in 102 pitches), and with one walk and nine strikeouts looked like the Harden we got last year when he was acquired from Oakland, the dominant Harden, the guy who could strike batters out almost at will.

Where have these guys been the last week?

The runs scored with seemingly great ease -- a timely two-out hit from Andres Blanco with a runner in scoring position (when's the last time we saw that? -- answer: I can't even recall), a home run from Ryan Theriot (when's the last time we saw that? -- answer: June 7), and a RBI double from Milton Bradley after Geovany Soto walked leading off the fourth inning (and when was Milton's last RBI? Believe it or not, more than two weeks ago, June 12, when he had a two-RBI double off Kevin Slowey of the Twins).

Now, that's more like it, right? Obviously, there's a lot more work to be done, but a win like this gives something to build on. In addition to Harden's fine pitching, Carlos Marmol had an uneventful inning (the last time he had a truly uneventful inning: four appearances ago in Detroit), and Kevin Gregg finished up easily for his 13th save. Jake Fox had a pair of hits and scored the first run of the game. And Sam Fuld, just recalled from Iowa, got into the game pinch-running for Fox... and promptly got caught stealing. Sorry, Jessica.

It was the Cubs' fastest nine-inning game of the season, two hours and seventeen minutes. The win moved the Cubs to within a half game of idle Cincinnati. The Brewers, at this writing, lead the Mets so, with the Cardinals apparently about to lose to Tim Lincecum and the Giants, Milwaukee will go into first place alone, a game ahead of St. Louis and remaining 3.5 games ahead of the Cubs.

There is work yet to do. But tonight makes a good starting point. Keep up the good work.