Maybe the Cubs should have traded Rich Harden.
After breezing through the first two innings last night, striking out four (although throwing an alarmingly large 33 pitches), Harden completely lost touch with the strike zone in the third inning. He doubled his pitch count in that inning alone, throwing another 33 pitches, issuing three walks and allowing a key two-run single to Cub-killer Carlos Lee. C-Lee drove in four runs and now has 47 RBI in 53 career games played at Wrigley Field.
The Astros held on to beat the Cubs 5-3, and the faint Cub playoff hopes dimmed even further. I won't give up until mathematical elimination -- and that's still quite a way off -- but obviously, things don't look very good. Since August 4, when the Cubs beat the Reds in Cincinnati to go a season-high 57-49, they are 8-16 and the Cardinals are 18-5. That's both a serious decline by the Cubs and an impressive run by St. Louis; only the Yankees at 18-6 are close to the Cardinals' record in that time frame.
This is a collapse not like the 1969 team, but more comparable to 1973, when the Cubs were 48-33 on July 1, eight games in first place, and then went on an 8-25 (yes, that's right, eight and twenty-five) skid that put them 56-58, five games out on August 8. I think this team is better than the '73 team, the last of the Williams/Santo/Jenkins/Kessinger/Beckert group that had run out of gas by then; I hope this year's team has one last run left in it.
Many of you have made comparisons between the 2009 Cubs and the thoroughly unlikable 2004 bunch that blew a sure wild-card berth in the last week of the season. I think the more apt comparison for 2009 is the 2005 team, the one that seemed poorly constructed from the beginning (Jim Hendry getting fooled by Jeromy Burnitz' big year in Colorado, signing him, expecting the same sort of production), and suffering injuries to key players (Nomar Garciaparra, Mark Prior) without having suitable backups. Remember how Dusty Baker, after giving Neifi Perez over 600 plate appearances and 136 starts, said, "Neifi saved us!" To which the response was, "From what?" On August 2, 2005 the Cubs stood at 54-52, four games out of the wild card lead and, as today, behind four other teams. They proceeded to lose eight games in a row, and by the time the carnage was over on August 29, had gone 8-17 and were out of it.
This team, again, I believe to be better than that one, but time is growing short, and they're not going to win many games leaving runners on third base with less than two out, as they did last night when Kosuke Fukudome couldn't bring Derrek Lee home after he had reached second on a dropped fly ball and gone to third on one of Aramis Ramirez's three line drives to Michael Bourn. The only positive from last night was, again, the work of the bullpen, who kept the team in the game. Aaron Heilman again threw two solid innings, and along with Kevin Gregg and John Grabow combined for four shutout, three-hit, six-strikeout innings.
All they can do is go out and win tonight, win the rest of the games on this homestand and try to sneak back into things. There was a fall-like chill in the late-August air last night; hopefully, that will not be an omen. And if the Cubs do fall out of it as their 2005 counterparts did, let us hope ownership and top management doesn't fool itself into thinking they will fix things as they did over the winter of 2005-06. The 2006 season, as you know, was a disaster. If 2009 isn't going to end up happily, at least let's have some hope for 2010.