More than a month ago, Ryan Dempster organized an outing for the entire Cubs team to watch the Blackhawks in their first playoff game of 2010 at the United Center.
The 'Hawks lost that game -- but since then, they have roared through the playoffs to reach the Finals.
Yesterday, several Blackhawks, including Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brian Campbell and Adam Burish, returned the favor by attending last night's Cubs game seated near the Cubs dugout to watch the Cubs' biggest hockey fan pitch against the Dodgers:
"It was exciting for all the guys," Dempster said about having the Blackhawks there. "I've been pulling for them really hard. The city deserves something like that. To see a team in the Stanley Cup Finals -- and what better group of guys than those guys. They're all first-class individuals, and I hope they're hoisting the cup above their heads real soon."
Dempster did not disappoint the 'Hawks, throwing his best game of the season and, arguably, the best start by any Cubs starter so far this year. Dempster's eight shutout innings and Derrek Lee's big day at the plate led the Cubs to a 3-0 win over the Dodgers, only their second shutout of 2010 (the other: a 2-0 shutout of the Braves on April 8).
D-Lee, who also had a slow start last year (prompting calls here -- not by me, though -- to replace him with Micah Hoffpauir), had his best day of the year, with a walk, single and double, and then a two-run homer in the eighth inning that gave the Cubs some breathing room. While Lee has had a tough early season, he's at least given the Cubs some production -- his 27 walks rank 11th in the NL -- and if last night is a sign he's coming out of it, that should help the Cub offense score on a more consistent basis. The HR was the 299th of his career; both Lee and Alfonso Soriano now sit one dinger short of 300. The thought of catching a potential milestone had the ballhawks on Waveland lined up paying rapt attention last night whenever Soriano was at the plate, but he went 0-for-3 with a walk.
But story #1 last night was Dempster, who gave up a hit and a walk in the first inning, and a pair of singles in the fourth, and nothing else. No Dodger got past second base. At 104 pitches, Dempster possibly could have finished, but Carlos Marmol seems in a groove now, and finished LA off for his 10th save -- to the crowd chanting "Manny sucks!" -- by striking out Manny Ramirez. Marmol has now thrown 23.2 innings -- that's 71 outs -- and registered 46 of those outs by strikeout.
One more important thing happened at Wrigley Field last night, off the field. If you came to last night's game with a bleacher ticket, and wanted to drink alcohol, you needed to get a wristband from crowd control. This is an outstanding idea and props to the Cubs for being proactive after the problems a couple of weeks ago and coming up with a solution. There were crowd control people checking ID's as people entered, and also several tables set up inside the bleachers issuing wristbands if you missed that coming in.
While it's not a perfect system, it should cut way down on the underage drinking. Incidentally, even though ID's are checked as you get a wristband, they will be checked again by the alcohol servers. There were a few people ejected last night, but no fights and the crowd, though small -- the bleachers were only about 2/3 full and the paid attendance of 34,749 was the smallest of the season -- was peaceful.
Meanwhile, the Cubs are heating up. They've now won seven of their last nine and, with losses by both the Reds and Cardinals last night, have moved to within four games of first place, the closest they have been since April 27.
Finally, goofy note of the day: last night's game was the first in major league history featuring two players named Xavier. A further coincidence: both were playing the same position -- right field -- Xavier Paul for the Dodgers and Xavier Nady for the Cubs. Both players continued the similarity by going 0-for-3.