Ryan Dempster walked the first two batters of Tuesday night's game on eight pitches and every Cubs fan had the same thought:
"Here we go again."
But Dempster was bailed out of that jam when Andre Ethier hit into a double play, and Dempster settled down to have his best start of the season (OK, so that wasn't too high a barrier to jump), allowing only one run in seven innings and "lowering" his ERA more than a run and a half, from 9.58 to 8.05. Yes, it's still ugly, but it's at least a little less ugly than it was. Dempster himself looked different last night, trimming his former goatee into a Fu Manchu-style mustache, a facial hair style we haven't seen much on baseball players since the 1980s.
Meanwhile, the Cubs were killing scoring opportunities of their own by taking their feet off bases for fractions of a second (Aramis Ramirez on an apparent double) and taking off for third in ill-considered TOOTBLANs (Reed Johnson in the eighth inning).
The latter happened after Carlos Pena launched his first home run in a Cubs uniform deep into the Los Angeles night. "About time" was launched around the Cubs Twittersphere not long after that.
So the game continued, 1-1 into the ninth inning, and at that time it was Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton who got himself into trouble with walks. The Cubs haven't been the most patient team at the plate this year -- they rank 14th in the National League with only 77 walks, more than half of those (41) by only three hitters, Pena, Geovany Soto and Kosuke Fukudome -- but Marlon Byrd and Pena worked walks off Broxton with one out.
That prompted a long meeting on the mound with Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and what seemed like two-thirds of the people remaining in Dodger Stadium last night; finally, after what felt like ten minutes, plate umpire C.B. Bucknor walked out and Mattingly called on Blake Hawksworth.
Hawksworth gave up the winning hit, a double by Soto that split Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier in right-center field that scored a pair. The next hitter, Blake DeWitt, who was batting for Kerry Wood, singled in Soto with another insurance run.
How often have we seen rallies like this by Cubs teams in the last three years, much less this year? Not very often, and almost never on the road. You'd like to think that's an encouraging sign.
Carlos Marmol finished up, posting his eighth save, and the Cubs had a 4-1 win over the Dodgers, helping Dempster celebrate his 34th birthday. Wood was outstanding again last night. This tells you that if more Cubs starters can do what Dempster did -- get through seven innings and allow few runs -- this team can put together a winning streak. Despite all their troubles, the Cubs remain just 3.5 games behind the first-place Cardinals.
One more note: Ethier singled, the first hit off Dempster, to stretch his hitting streak to 29. Streaks of 30 or more are fairly rare; though there have been 12 single-season hitting streaks of 30 games or more since 1980, nine of those ended at exactly 30. The last player to have a single-season (i.e. not split over the end of one year and beginning of the next) hitting streak longer than 30 games was the Phillies' Chase Utley, who hit in 35 straight in 2006.
I'd be happy to give Ethier a hit today in exchange for a Cubs win. The preview thread for this afternoon's game will post at 12:30 p.m. CDT.