Seven outstanding innings from a Cubs starting pitcher.
Late-inning clutch hitting with RISP -- after a stolen base puts that runner in scoring position in the first place.
And a manager who isn't afraid to draw criticism from both fans and that starting pitcher after pulling him in the eighth inning with a relatively low pitch count.
Who are these guys?
All of those things happened in last night's 4-0 Cubs shutout of the Nationals, completing a three-game sweep for the Cubs for the first time since they swept the Diamondbacks in early July and keeping new manager Mike Quade undefeated at 3-0. It was the Cubs' seventh shutout win (they have been shut out nine times), and oddly, their only series sweeps this year have come on the road (those two plus one in Milwaukee in April).
Look at what Ryan Dempster said after he was pulled for pinch-hitter Tyler Colvin after only 79 pitches (57 strikes) in seven innings:
"I don't care. We won the game," he said. "We swept them, and what a great series. It was a lot of fun. It's awesome, man. Do I want to come out of the game? No. He knows that; everybody knows that. But [there were] way too many positive things to come out of today to worry about that, for sure."
That, for sure, is the statement of a team leader and someone with respect for his manager. I still think Ryne Sandberg should be named manager for next year. But if this team keeps playing this way under Mike Quade, Quade will certainly have a case to make for himself. (For those clamoring for Quade, though, I remind you that the Cubs won their first five games under Jim Essian in 1991 -- Essian wound up under .500 and never managed in the major leagues again.)
It turned out to be a 100% correct call. I probably wouldn't have done it myself, but the score was 0-0 and in the eighth inning, Quade wanted the Cubs to generate some offense -- even though Dempster had also had one of the Cubs' hits in the first seven innings off former teammate Jason Marquis (Marquis returned the favor, getting one of the Nats' two hits off Dempster).
Tyler Colvin drew a walk. That's unusual enough -- he's walked only 26 times this year. Then he stole second base -- his fifth steal in six attempts. And Starlin Castro yanked what looked like a pitch that might have been out of the zone for a RBI double down the left-field line. Aramis Ramirez followed a Marlon Byrd strikeout with a two-run homer, his 20th, and the game was essentially over. Ramirez now has eight 20+ homer seasons. Alfonso Soriano, apparently not satisfied with a team-leading tie with A-Ram in homers, smacked his 21st in the ninth to seal the deal.
Castro, incidentally, now has 392 plate appearances. The Cubs finished their 128th game last night, which means he'd need, as of this morning, 397 to show up in the league leaders list. If he continues to get four PA per game, he should be there by early next week. If he had enough today, he'd rank sixth, 11 points below Joey Votto in batting average.
Andrew Cashner looked like the dominant pitcher he was when the Cubs first called him up in a scoreless inning of relief and Carlos Marmol finished up.
Yes, I know the Nationals have been floundering around the nether regions of the NL East with a record similar to the Cubs'. Still, wins are wins. The Cubs have now won seven consecutive games at Nationals Park -- they had a four-game sweep there in July 2009 -- and eight of the ten games they've played there since the park opened in 2008.
It won't be as easy this weekend when the Cubs face the division-leading Reds; they've lost 10 of 13 to the Reds this year. Nevertheless, this team is now playing much better baseball, not only getting hits at important times and solid pitching, but playing better defense and looking like they know what they're doing fundamentally. The Reds will be a good test of Mike Quade as manager and the Cubs can use this series as a benchmark of sorts to see how they stand up to a contending team now that the managerial reins have been changed -- from August 6-22, they went 4-13 in a stretch of games all against first-place or contending teams.