One thing you cannot criticize about the 2009 Cubs is their starting pitching.
Cubs starters are riding 14 consecutive scoreless innings after Ryan Dempster threw eight superb frames in a 2-0 win over the Brewers. Combined with the Giants' 9-1 win over the Rockies, the Cubs crept to within 6.5 games of the wild-card lead with 20 games remaining.
Yes, I know it's still a longshot, uphill climb, whatever else on the cliché list you'd like to call it. But as long as there is still a chance for postseason play, I hope the Cubs play just the way they did last night -- because in general, outstanding pitching shuts down good hitting in October. The Cubs have had excellent performance out of their starting pitchers all year; last night's eight shutout innings from Dempster was the 86th quality start of the season, tied with the Braves for second in the NL, one behind the Rockies. (Comparison point: last year's 97-win Cub team had 84 quality starts the entire season.) And that's with having one starter (Randy Wells) play the first month of the year in Triple-A and the other four all having stints on the disabled list.
Carlos Marmol finished up with a scoreless inning for his 13th save. Though Marmol does have four blown saves this year, he has none since officially being named closer in mid-August. He did issue a walk, which appears typical for him this year; command and control will be things he'll have to work on in the offseason. I was reminded last night of the way Mitch Williams closed out games for the 1989 division champs; Williams walked 52 in 81.2 innings and saved 36 games despite a 1.51 WHIP (and ten blown saves!). Closing was a different animal in that era -- 20 of Williams' saves were more than one inning in length -- but maybe the Cubs have another pitcher who can close out games despite having imperfect command. Marmol, at least, rarely gives up hits, allowing only 38 hits (and only one home run) in 68.2 innings.
The game flew by (2:15, one minute longer than the shortest nine-inning game of the year on September 2) on a flawless 76-degree September evening, with almost no wind. I had to laugh at the boxscore description of the wind as "1 MPH"; how do they measure something that small? The flags weren't moving at all either on the roof of the ballpark or on the flagpoles on the scoreboard. Both pitchers, Dempster and Jeff Suppan, were inducing ground balls in the pitcher-friendly conditions; in the combined 15 innings (45 outs' worth) they threw, 28 outs were registered on the ground, including a pair of bunts by Suppan which were attempts for base hits -- a peculiar strategy for a pitcher who has a decent .175 lifetime batting average.
One of the outs not recorded on a ground ball was an outstanding, Web Gem catch by Sam Fuld, diving after a ball hit by Frank Catalanotto with the tying run on third base and two out in the fifth inning. Fuld may not have all the tools to play more than part-time in the major leagues, but he is an outstanding defensive player. After that inning the Brewers only managed a pair of singles, and the Cubs turned a rare 6-5-3 double play when they had the extreme RF shift on against Prince Fielder in the seventh.
Incidentally, I thought it was strange that Ryan Braun, who is healthy and was hit by a pitch as a PH in the eighth, didn't start last night. And it wasn't as if the Brewers were trying out a prospect in his place, either; Frank Catalanotto, who started in LF, is 35 and about as far from prospect status as... well, as Jody Gerut, who started in RF in place of Corey Hart (who, admittedly, is just coming back from an appendectomy). If the Brewers want to start their B-lineup the rest of this series, though, that's fine with me.
The Cubs' offense was provided by Derrek Lee's 33rd homer of the year and a nice sequence in the eighth inning; a leadoff pinch-hit double by Mike Fontenot (curiosity: all four of his pinch-hits in 2009 have been doubles), followed by a perfect Ryan Theriot sacrifice bunt and a deep fly ball from Kosuke Fukudome.
The Cubs are now 9-4 in September, having one of their best Septembers in recent years. While there is still a postseason chance, I'll keep up hope. (And it's always nice to beat the Brewers.) Go Cubs.