The Cubs gave Edwin Jackson a four-year, $52 million deal before this season and I don't think anyone would disagree with the word "disappointment" to describe it, up to now. (You probably have more choice words, but we'll leave them out of this discussion.)
Thursday night, Jackson lived up to the hype. In by far his best performance of 2013, Jackson gave up just three hits and no walks in seven strong innings, striking out five. I could quibble with Dale Sveum for taking him out after seven, mainly because quibbling with Dale is sport around these parts, but the game wound up as one of the Cubs' best efforts of the season, a 3-0 shutout of the Cardinals, so the complaint department will be closed today. (Sveum was likely trying to get some more runs, as Jackson was scheduled to lead off the bottom of the seventh, but Dave Sappelt puts fear into no one as a pinch-hitter.)
It was the first shutout of this year's Cardinals since April 28 and just the second shutout by Cubs pitching this year (the other: May 27 over the White Sox.
Better still was the fact that much of the offense was produced by two players who are supposed to be the beginning of the new core that's supposed to lead the Cubs to annual contention ... soon.
Anthony Rizzo had two hits and a walk and drove in all three runs. He appears to be becoming a streak hitter, much like Alfonso Soriano. That's okay, because streak hitters can carry teams. What I'd like to see, and it's certainly possible for a 23-year-old hitter to adjust, is for him to be more consistent. Maybe it's starting. Not only that, but Rizzo's biggest hit, a two-run single in the third inning, was not only hit with two RISP, but snaked through in between shortstop and third base to the opposite field. Teams have been shifting on Rizzo; maybe hits like this will spread out the defense and help him spread out his hits.
Next, Starlin Castro is showing signs of coming out of his slump. He had three hits and much better at-bats, hit the ball hard, and is also playing better defense. He made several very nice plays Thursday night, and a lot of that appears to be due to better footwork and measuring his throws better.
If these two can have better second halves, the Cubs' offense suddenly looks a lot better.
Also providing an excellent defensive play was Brian Bogusevic, back in the lineup for the first time in a week. He made an outstanding running, leaping-into-the-ivy catch in deep center field on a drive leading off the seventh by Matt Adams. That provoked a gesture of "Thanks, man!" from Jackson that you see at the top of this recap.
The bullpen wasn't great -- Blake Parker got himself into trouble by allowing a single and a walk -- but James Russell and Pedro Strop got him out of it. Strop was summoned to face Carlos Beltran in a game situation -- Beltran representing the tying run, and you know how Beltran has hit Cubs pitching in the past. Strop struck him out with some real nice pitch selection and velocity. Strop had a bad year for Baltimore, but was quite good for them in 2012, and perhaps the Cubs have a real find in him. Kevin Gregg finished up for his 16th save, with Soriano making a nice grab of Jon Jay's sinking liner to end it.
The weather was perfect -- low 70s, low humidity, perfectly clear skies with a thin crescent moon visible in the western sky. The baseball was nearly perfect, good execution on virtually all aspects of the game by the Cubs, and made even better by shutting out their biggest rival. Since the Cubs lost three of four in St. Louis in mid-June, they are 12-7, while the Cardinals are 8-9.
I'd expect a huge walkup sale for Friday afternoon's game, which is supposed to be played in just-as-perfect weather; with the Cubs playing better and Cardinals fans headed up for the weekend, this could be one of the bigger crowds of the year.
This team is improved over last year's version, no question about it. Contender, yet? No, but you can definitely see steps in the right direction.