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Sweep! Cubs Keep Faint Playoff Hopes Alive With 8-5 Win Over Pirates

SOMEWHERE IN OHIO -- On September 23, 1976, I attended this game at Wrigley Field between the Cubs and Pirates.

Turned around from 2009, the Cubs were bad that year, settling into fifth place (only because the Expos were far worse), and the Pirates were contenders, though they finished second to the Phillies.

The Cubs lost that game 5-4 in 10 innings and the attendance was 2,132, the smallest crowd of that season.

That's what today's 8-5 Cubs win over the Pirates at PNC Park felt like. The announced attendance was 10,899, but in the years since 1976 (in 1993, to be exact) the National League went from announcing the turnstile count to announcing tickets sold. There may have been 10,899 tickets sold for today's game, but there were far fewer than 10,899 people in PNC Park on a nice afternoon when the sun finally broke through in Pittsburgh for the first time since I had arrived late Sunday. There might have been 5,000 people in the park, including a large group that all sat together in the RF corner, one man who sat by himself in the last row of the second-to-last section of the upper deck in left field, and about half of the tiny assemblage was Cubs fans.

What they saw was the Cubs' 9th win in 11 games vs. Pittsburgh this year -- and there are still four games left with the Bucs at Wrigley Field. It was nearly effortless; you'll find out more about the "nearly" below the fold. The Cubs scored in each of the first three innings and Carlos Zambrano threw six solid innings, before apparently having words with Lou upon being removed after going out to warm up for the seventh. Z threw 98 pitches and I could have gone either way on leaving him in, but if you're going to take him out, Lou, take him out, don't make him warm up that way waiting for a pinch-hitter to be announced (Ramon Vazquez) so you could call on your lefty, John Grabow. I can't imagine it makes much difference who faces Vazquez, who is actually hitting better vs. LHP this year -- .308 -- than he is vs. RHP -- .233. Grabow got Vazquez to ground out.

More about the "nearly" -- I, for one, will be very glad when we Cubs fans, and the team, bid farewell to Kevin Gregg. I did predict this coming -- not the HR allowed (13, now leading all NL relievers), but the walks. Gregg issued 37 walks in 68 innings last year with the Marlins, and he's well on his way to matching that this year, with 27 in 64 innings. His lack of control has resulted in many blown saves and he nearly blew this game, issuing a pair of walks and then a three-run homer to our old pal Ronny Cedeno, which was the only time the few Pirates fans who remained until the bottom of the 8th cheered. It wasn't much of a cheer, either.

What it did do was force Lou to go to Carlos Marmol to save the game in the 9th, and credit to Marmol -- since he was officially anointed closer he has posted a 1.93 ERA in nine appearances, has seven saves and no blown saves, and most importantly, he has recovered his control. He's walked six in that time, but three of those were in a lost-cause game against the Nationals on August 26, and I think he's got back to the solid Marmol we knew last year and the second half of 2007. Part of it might have been in his head -- remember that he wasn't happy when Gregg was given the closer job during spring training? Sure, professionals shouldn't let that happen, but it's human nature. Gregg will say farewell when this year is over and the Cubs have their closer for 2010, which will allow them to spend money elsewhere next season.

Micah Hoffpauir, who had a tough go of it most of this year, has made his case in the last two days for a 2010 spot, also. He homered for the second straight day, walked twice and scored three runs. In the absence of Alfonso Soriano, why not platoon Hoffpauir and Jake Fox in LF for a while? Sam Fuld can spell them defensively after the 7th, as he did today. (Fox seems to have gotten into Lou's doghouse for some reason; why he didn't start vs. Zach Duke Tuesday night is a mystery.)

I'm heading back on the road shortly after I write this, having enjoyed the trip and the 4-2 record. I truly do feel sorry for Pirates fans, who have been jacked around for 17 years by three different ownership groups. They do have loyal longtime fans in Pittsburgh who support the team through thin and thin (and that's not a misprint), and with the winners already in town (the Steelers and Penguins), the city would just love to have a baseball winner too. However, right now I'm glad they're just fodder for Cubs victories. After the Bucs used to dispatch the Cubs regularly in the 1970's, they owe us a few.