It's official: I am on the Micah Hoffpauir bandwagon.
Now, that doesn't mean I think he should be starting and I still cringe a little when I think of him surrounding a baseball in right field. But last night, he had an absolutely perfect pinch-hit at-bat; rather than trying to overswing and smash the ball over the right-field fence, he went with a pitch up and out over the plate and flared it to the opposite field. It dropped for an RBI single, scoring Derrek Lee. That's exactly the kind of thing a pinch-hitter needs to do in that situation; if Micah can continue to do this, he's perfect for the role.
Then, Kevin Gregg, who had been so horrible just one day before, threw 12 pitches (eight strikes), got three quick outs for his ninth save and the Cubs quickly righted the ship, defeating the Braves 3-2 in 11 innings. It broke a seven-game road losing streak.
Once again, they got outstanding starting pitching. Ted Lilly, who has been the team's most consistent starter all year and also appears to be becoming the leader of the staff (the "ace", if you will, and I know that remark may begin a controversy), threw seven solid innings. While his 10 homers allowed in 11 starts seems like a lot, four of those were served up to the Astros in his first start of the year (and the Cubs won that game anyway). The only aspect of Lilly's game that I think needs work is his defense; the sight of him falling down attempting to field a bunt and then throwing it away is one we've seen before. The error helped make one of Atlanta's runs unearned.
Kudos are also deserved this morning for the bullpen's work beyond Gregg; Carlos Marmol settled down from his wild appearance on Tuesday to throw a scoreless inning, and I can't say enough good things about Angel Guzman. Here's one move that was debated on this site during spring training (whether to keep Guzman, who was out of options, or Chad Gaudin) that has clearly worked out to the benefit of the Cubs. Guzman has become the most reliable reliever in what otherwise has been a shaky relief corps. He has issued only eight walks in 25 innings while striking out 23 and allowed only 15 hits. While Marmol may have "earned" the right to be considered for closer in 2010 when, presumably, Gregg will have departed to free agency, I think Guzman should be given consideration for the role.
Also give credit to D-Lee, who had two hits last night and also made a couple of fine stops in the field. Whether his power will return or not is still an open question, but there is no question that his defense is still outstanding.
This win was one that, if the Cubs do go on to have the playoff season we're hoping for, could be labeled as "character-building" or a "turning point". Bad teams would come off a loss like Tuesday's and start a long losing streak. A turnaround win like last night's could start a similar winning run, presuming, of course, that Carlos Zambrano -- who almost defines the term "mercurial" -- can put his head in the game tonight long enough to beat a tough pitcher in Jair Jurrjens. The Braves made bigger news than their loss last night; just a couple of days after I asked Martin at Talking Chop why Tom Glavine was still attempting a comeback, the Braves released him. They had offered him the chance to gracefully retire as a Brave, but he declined. I can't imagine anyone else signing him, so he probably should have accepted the offer.
More importantly and perhaps more relevant to the Cubs, the Braves sent three minor leaguers to the Pirates for center fielder Nate McLouth, who presumably will be in Atlanta's starting lineup tonight against Z. McLouth just signed a three-year deal with the Bucs this past February, giving everyone the impression that Pittsburgh might be trying to lock up their good young talent at fairly reasonable prices and build around them. The fact that they shipped McLouth away so quickly means, perhaps, that the Pirates are trying to dump salary and that Freddy Sanchez might indeed be available.
Go get him, Jim Hendry. You've had fine luck trading with the Pirates in the past, and Sanchez would solve several Cubs problems, for now and for the rest of the season.