If only the rest of this season had gone like 2008.
Carlos Marmol had thrown in five of the last six games, so manager Mike Quade gave him Monday night off. When the game in Houston came down to a one-run contest in the ninth inning, there was Kerry Wood, in the role he performed so well during the Cubs' division title year in 2008. Wood posted 34 saves that year, matching his longtime uniform number.
But he had not been used in a closing situation all season -- in fact, had pitched in the ninth inning only three times before last night -- and the four blown saves and four home runs allowed by Wood this season had, so far, added up to a somewhat mediocre return to the North Side.
If only for one night, though, Wood looked like that 2008 closer. Granted that Jason Michaels, Jimmy Paredes and Humberto Quintero aren't exactly Murderers' Row, but Wood put them down with only 10 pitches (eight strikes) and struck out Paredes and Quintero. His velocity looked good and maybe, just maybe, he's finally becoming the lights-out setup man he was for the Yankees after they acquired him late in 2010.
The Cubs defeated the Astros 4-3 Monday night in Houston. They announced a crowd of 20,138, but from the handful of TV views that showed large parts of the stadium empty, there couldn't have been more than 7,000 people in the house.
Can you blame them? The Astros are completely retooling, having traded away two of their best players, and are putting a lineup on the field that is not much more than a Triple-A team. Some of these players (Jose Altuve and J.D. Martinez in particular) look like pretty good prospects and might become solid regulars in time.
But this year, Houston is headed for what looks like a 110-loss season. Not only would that be only the third such season since 1969, but the Astros have never even had a 100-loss year in their history. They could get there by Labor Day, and the magic number for mathematically eliminating them from postseason consideration is eight.
As for the game, the Cubs scored a pair in the first inning and never trailed; Starlin Castro made a couple more slick defensive plays, throwing runners out from the outfield grass. The best thing about those long throws isn't that Castro has such a strong arm -- we already knew that -- but the fact that those throws were accurate, on target, and didn't make Carlos Pena go into contortions to catch them. We are seeing Castro mature into an All-Star caliber shortstop, both offensively and defensively.
Meanwhile, Rodrigo Lopez threw well enough -- 5.1 innings, two earned runs -- that maybe, possibly, someone might be interested enough to deal for him (he's cleared waivers). That would make his acquisition worth it, if the Cubs could get back a better prospect than they gave up.
The Cubs are now 11-3 in August, and even more impressive is this: they've gotten back to .500 (19-19) in one-run games. Last year, the Cubs were awful in one-run games until August, going 15-30 until they turned it around and won seven of their last nine one-run affairs. It is, at least, something positive to think about as this dreary year begins to wrap up; with 40 games remaining, we are now three-quarters finished with 2011. It doesn't mean that changes aren't needed -- they are -- but maybe there's hope for the near future after all.