Nine hours, 81,245 fans and countless beers after Wrigley Field opened for business on Sunday, the Cubs wound up exactly where they started -- at .500 and 3.5 games out of first place -- following a day-night doubleheader split. The Cubs won the first game convincingly 7-3 and dropped game two 4-2, in part because of a strange strike zone from plate umpire Marvin Hudson.
For once, weather wasn't an issue; despite early predictions of scattered showers in the evening, the sun was shining brightly all afternoon and the sky was clear at night.
Carlos Zambrano threw six solid innings -- having only one frame (the third) where he lost his command, and that resulted in the Cardinals tying the game after Micah Hoffpauir parked a three-run homer deep into the right-field bleachers in the first inning. Z got the Cubs the lead back to stay an inning later when he hit his third homer of the season (and 19th of his career). The 19 home runs ties Z with former White Sox pitcher Gary Peters for 14th place on the all-time pitcher home run list. The career record is 37, held by Wes Ferrell, who pitched mostly for Cleveland, Boston and Washington in the 1930's. (Ferrell hit 38 career HR; one was as a pinch-hitter, and it was memorable: a three-run walkoff on June 21, 1935.)
Digression over; after Z's homer he settled down on the mound, too, retiring the last ten batters he faced (yes, one of them, Albert Pujols, reached base when Ryan Theriot dropped his popup, but then Theriot threw him out trying to take second). Sean Marshall, Carlos Marmol (who looked pretty good even with one walk) and Kevin Gregg finished up -- the Cardinals got only one hit over the last six innings, and the Cub first-game starting lineup, which resembled something you might see in spring training, tacked on three more runs in the eighth, mainly thanks to a pair of St. Louis errors.
So after a few of us went down the street for an early between-games dinner, optimism was high that the Cubs could pull off the sweep and thus move to within 1.5 games of first place. It's impossible to tell how many people attended both games, but by 5:30, 90 minutes before the scheduled night game time, lines for the bleachers extended from the corner of Waveland & Sheffield all the way to Clark Street on the LF side, and around the corner onto Addison Street on the RF side, forcing the Cubs to open the park thirty minutes before they had originally planned -- there was some rowdiness in line and the Cubs, apparently fearing trouble on the street, figured it was easier to get everyone inside.
Games like the second are maddening -- with the regulars (save Kosuke Fukudome) back in the lineup and Randy Wells pitching as well as he has so far, you figure there's a good chance at a sweep. Unfortunately, Ryan Ludwick had other ideas -- he hit a pair of two-run homers. That, really, was the story of the game. Wells didn't have his good command in the first inning, but after he got Pujols to hit into a double play, it looked as if he could have gotten out of the inning unscathed. Ludwick had other ideas, and repeated the blast in the sixth for his seventh career two-homer game. (Other than the homers, Wells threw a pretty good game after he settled down.)
The Cubs had their chances; they left RISP in the third, fourth and sixth and took far too many called third strikes, although the latter may have been more due to a badly-called strike zone by plate umpire Marvin Hudson than any fault of Cub hitters. I once facetiously criticized Milton Bradley for drawing too many walks. Yesterday, he had four of them -- three in the first game -- and probably should have had ball four in the ninth inning. My friend Phil -- who I don't often agree with -- says that maybe the Cubs should try Bradley in the leadoff spot after the break. It's an intriguing idea, especially with his 41 walks now second on the team to Fukudome and his .379 OBA tops on the roster. Bradley's not driving in runs right now -- why not use him in a spot where he can contribute to the team and get on base to start a game?
The most entertaining part of game two was Lou's decision -- done by managers every now and again -- to shift Sean Marshall to left field after he had walked pinch-hitter Nick Stavinoha to load the bases in the top of the ninth, so that Aaron Heilman could come in and face Brendan Ryan. The Marshall Plan then had him return to the mound to throw the rest of the inning, with Reed Johnson going to LF. The look on Alfonso Soriano's face and his bearing were priceless when Lou pointed at him -- "Who, ME? You want ME to come out of the game?" Marshall stood there as if he were just getting ready to shag flies during batting practice; Heilman did his job by striking out Ryan and then Marshall returned to the mound, bases still loaded, and calmly retired the side, thanks in part to a catch Johnson made after tripping and falling (replays appeared to indicate the ball might have been trapped).
Unfortunately, it seemed as if umpire Hudson had a late dinner date, because he called three questionable third strikes in the last of the ninth, giving Ryan Franklin his 21st save and putting the Cubs back to .500.
It's not the worst spot to be in -- almost identical, in fact, to the 2003 Cubs' spot at the All-Star break (47-47, third, 3 games out) and the 2007 Cubs' spot at the break (44-43, second, 4.5 games out). This flawed and injured team still has a real shot at postseason competition, if, as Lou said in his postgame remarks, "they rest up, get healthy, and start swinging the bats. It's as simple as that."
It really is as simple as that, although the Cubs could also use relief help. As I tweeted yesterday, rumor has it that the Cubs are working on a deal for a major league catcher. I also heard late yesterday that they may be after some relief help by trade, and they may still go after B.J. Ryan after he clears waivers today, to which I say, "Good!" Send him to Iowa for a while, and if he's got anything left, put him in the pen and Marshall back in the rotation.
Enjoy the break. I will post an All-Star game thread sometime tomorrow, late afternoon or early evening, and then I am off to follow the Cubs on the next road trip. I'll be at the upcoming games in Washington and Philadelphia, so any of you who live there or are also traveling there and would like to meet up at Nationals Park or Citizens Bank Park, email me and we'll make arrangements. (Also, I have an extra pair of tickets for the Thursday night game in Washington, if you are interested.)
Here's to a great second half!