Everything was better today than yesterday.
Ted Lilly was named today as the Cubs' sole representative to the 2009 NL All-Star team, and went out and threw another solid game. The Cub offense stepped up with 13 hits and a pair of homers, capped by Jake Fox's two-run job to Waveland. (You already know, if you follow either Ballhawk Ken or me via Twitter, that Ballhawk Dave caught that one on the fly.) And summer weather arrived at last, with plentiful sunshine and temperatures in the mid-70's, all adding up to an 8-2 Cubs win over the Brewers.
That made it three out of four in the series, so the Cubs accomplished what they needed to -- establishing that they can win series at home, and against a division rival. That makes five of the last seven, and the team looks like it's starting to play together and with some (for lack of a better term, I'll use Lou's) "Cubbie Swagger". In other words, they go on the field with confidence and everyone contributes.
Derrek Lee continued his hot streak, driving in three runs with a single and a homer; he has reached 15 HR and 51 RBI in 79 games, putting him on pace for a 30/100 season, which would be only the second such season of his career. Kosuke Fukudome had a better day in the leadoff spot, with a pair of hits and a sacrifice fly. Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot also had a pair of hits each, and Fox added a double to his Waveland homer.
Even the booed (and that was ridiculous) Alfonso Soriano had two hits, both balls that were nearly caught in the outfield. But. He didn't appear to be running hard on either ball, and I will not accuse him of loafing, because I don't think that's it at all. I think he's hurt -- you could see him flexing his left leg several times in the outfield after returning to the field after one of the hits -- and the fact that he was the only starter pulled with the 8-2 lead intact after seven innings hints at that. There were unconfirmed rumors floating around the bleachers today that Sori is headed to the DL tomorrow when Reed Johnson returns from the DL. Despite the two hits today, a couple of weeks off wouldn't hurt, especially with the All-Star break about to intervene.
But besides D-Lee, the star of the game was Lilly, who threw 6.2 strong innings and left to a standing ovation (he also got one when he laid down a sweet-looking sac bunt in the sixth). He struck out nine and walked none and made only one mistake, the homer allowed to Prince Fielder. Perhaps more importantly, Aaron Heilman threw 1.2 solid innings of relief without walking anyone (14 strikes in 19 pitches), and Carlos Marmol looked good again; this was a perfect no-pressure situation for him to get some of his command back (17 pitches, 10 strikes).
With the Cardinals' 10-1 blowout of the Reds today, the Cubs remain 2.5 games out of first place, but move ahead of Cincinnati into third, and only 1.5 games behind the second-place Brewers. The Cardinals, Brewers and Cubs have all lost 39 games and the Reds have lost 40. In fact, there are no less than ten teams in the National League whose records are between six games over .500 (St. Louis, 45-39) and three games under .500 (Atlanta and New York, 39-42). That puts those ten teams within 4.5 games of each other, not a significant difference with half the season played. No races in the NL have sorted themselves out yet, not even the NL West -- the Giants have fought to stay within 6.5 games of the Dodgers.
And until the league sorts itself out -- and the AL's the same way; besides the Yankees and Red Sox, there are eight other teams with records between 44-35 (Angels, Rangers) and 42-39 (Mariners), a three-game spread -- don't expect any major dealing to be made. That's 18 teams within a handful of games of each other and four others leading the pack. They all think they still have a chance, and likely, many of them still do. This could be one of those strange years where the talent is spread evenly over many rosters and it might be August or even September before it sorts itself out.
Fasten your seat belts and enjoy the ride, and remember it continues an hour earlier than the original schedule tomorrow (for national TV on ESPN) at 6:05 CDT.