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Iowa... Er, Chicago Cubs Shut Out Astros 12-0

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On Opening Day, if I had told you that sometime in midsummer, I would see Randy Wells and Mitch Atkins combine on a shutout at Wrigley Field, you probably would have assumed I was talking about the "Road to Wrigley" game that's going to take place on August 9 between Iowa and Las Vegas (note on that page it still says Jake Fox is a "rising star" playing for Iowa -- maybe that needs to be updated).

Instead, Wells, who is making a strong case for NL Rookie of the Year, threw eight shutout innings, allowing just six singles and not permitting a runner past first base until the eighth inning, and Atkins, in his major league debut, threw a scoreless ninth to finish off a 12-0 shutout of the Astros, the Cubs' biggest shutout victory in more than four years, since they blanked the Marlins 14-0 on June 14, 2005, behind a five-hit shutout by Sergio Mitre. 19 outs today were recorded on ground balls and the Cubs turned four double plays behind Wells and Atkins.

I was kind of hoping Wells could keep his pitch count down in the 7th and 8th innings so he could have a shot at a CG shutout -- you don't see many of those any more, and the Cubs' only CG this year is by Sean Marshall in a five-inning, rain-shortened win over the Pirates on May 26. But with Wells at 110 pitches through eight innings and a fresh arm in Atkins in the pen, it was probably wise to get Wells out of there and rest him up for his next start. Wells' ERA, now 2.85, would rank eighth in the league if he had enough innings to qualify. His eight innings today give him 95; the Cubs have played 99 games, so he'd need to throw a CG to qualify after his next start. More likely, it'll take two starts to get him there, but Wells, who with his seventh win now has more than any Cub rookie pitcher in a season since Kerry Wood's 13 in 1998, has been just about the most consistent pitcher the Cubs have had since his recall. He has gone at least six innings in 12 of his 15 starts and has, arguably, had only one really bad start among the 15.

In addition to Wells, the offense came out smoking in the first inning and never stopped.

The Cubs pounded Mike Hampton for five hits and two walks in the first inning; along with a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly, the big blow was Alfonso Soriano's three-run homer (I guess Soriano's back on track now, wouldn't you say?) and though Hampton probably would have been yanked early in most circumstances, the Astros' beleaguered bullpen status meant that Hampton had to slog through three more innings, taking one for the team, before he was removed for a pinch-hitter. All told he took 79 pitches to get 12 outs, allowed four walks, eight hits, and nine earned runs, including a second homer by Aramis Ramirez. You know by now if you follow me or ballhawk on Twitter that Ballhawk Ken caught A-Ram's HR on the fly, right near the corner of Waveland & Kenmore. He said "the ball caught me, rather than me catching it", but he is being too modest. I watched the ball all the way into Ken's glove and it was a solid catch, very impressive. He said after the game that he caught one from Khalil Greene last year, but can't remember the last Cub HR he caught on the fly. Just got another tweet from Ken thanking Ballhawk Jeff for tracking down A-Ram's car and getting Aramis to sign the ball for him.

By the middle innings Lou had started to empty his bench; the first to sit was Reed Johnson, who left after fouling a ball off his foot in the first inning. Late radio reports indicate that Johnson has a fractured bone in his foot and may be out a month -- calling Sam Fuld, I suppose, yet another Iowa recall.

After the seventh inning, the bench totally emptied out and more players who spent much time at Iowa wound up in the game, including Jake Fox, who drove in a pair of runs with a sac fly and a single, and Andres Blanco, who hit his first major league home run off the RF foul pole in the 8th. Congratulations to him, and props to the Cubs, who can win this series tomorrow and, if the Dodgers can cooperate by beating the Cardinals tonight, take over first place again later this evening.

Final shout-out to a young couple originally from England, now living in Chicago, who are "just getting into baseball", attending the game with one of their dads (sorry, I never did find out which!) -- welcome to Chicago and the Cubs, you sure saw a special game today.