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Justin Lehr, Your 15 Minutes Is Up: Journeyman Shuts Out Cubs 4-0

You have got to be kidding me.

Justin Lehr -- who turned 32 on Monday, similar in age to Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster -- making his second major league start after spending most of the last two and a half years in the minors, looked like Greg Maddux last night, baffling the Cubs with offspeed pitches and allowing them only three singles and a double in a 4-0 Cubs shutout loss to the Reds.

And the double was by pitcher Rich Harden, his first career extra-base hit.

Harden didn't pitch that badly -- his only real mistake was grooving a pitch to Cub nemesis Scott Rolen, who originally wasn't going to play in this series -- allowing three runs (two earned) in six innings, yet another quality start. The real problem was the Cubs' lack of good fundamental play:
  • Rich Harden tried to throw out the lead runner at third on an attempted sacrifice; he had no chance to do so and this gave the Reds their third run. Lesson: when the other team gives you an out, take it.
  • Mike Fontenot missed an easy tag on Brandon Phillips trying to steal second after Koyie Hill's throw beat Phillips. This one didn't really matter, as Phillips was promptly caught trying to steal third.
  • Aaron Miles failed to throw out Willy Taveras on a routine ground ball to shortstop. Can we please never see Miles in the starting lineup again? This did cost the Cubs a run, as Taveras stole second and third and scored on a sac fly.
  • And, Alfonso Soriano got picked off. Again.

Sometimes a team just has an off day -- as opposed to a day off, which the Cubs apparently took a day early. They looked like they didn't even want to be on the field, instead anticipating their late-night flight and day off in Denver today. (Thanks, schedulemakers, they were thinking, for giving us Thursday off in Denver instead of Monday off in Cincinnati.)

The pitching outing reminded me of this one on August 1, 2008, when Jeff Karstens, just acquired by the Pirates from the Yankees, shut the Cubs down for six shutout innings and the Cubs looked just about as listless as they did last night. (Look who got the save in that game, too.) Karstens didn't finish the game but it was played by the Cubs in much the same "get me out of here fast" way. The good news, perhaps, is that after that loss last year, the Cubs won ten of their next twelve games and 20 of their next 27.

It will, however, get a bit tougher from here. The Cubs' 14-6 record since the All-Star break is still best in the National League since then, but the next two opponents, the Rockies and Phillies, are currently tied for second-best mark since the ASB at 12-7 and are, obviously, much better teams than the Reds.

If the Cubs can weather the next seven games at, say, 4-3, they then will start a stretch of 17 games, 13 of which are against the lower ranks of the league (Pirates, Padres, Nationals and Mets), and four with the Dodgers. That might be a good time to stake a claim on first place and stay there.

By Friday, we should have a real good idea of how the roster will stand for the balance of the month and down the stretch. Gordon Wittenmyer saysa position player will be sent out when Geovany Soto returns, and as I have repeatedly written, I hope it's Micah Hoffpauir. Get him three-plus weeks of regular at-bats at Iowa to help him get his timing back; he can return September 1 and still be eligible for postseason play if needed. Meanwhile, Lilly's return will likely be during the San Diego series the week after next, and unlike Ryan Dempster, Ted will make one rehab start before returning to the major leagues. When Lilly comes back, I suspect Jeff Samardzija will be sent to Iowa and Tom Gorzelanny will become the third lefty in the bullpen (what will Lou do, with so many lefthanders available?).

About last night's game, brush it off. You have to, because dwelling on a loss as bad as that one won't do any good. Blind squirrels and all that. Onward to Friday in Colorado.