Wrigley Field packed to the rafters. Cubs hitters smacking balls all over the yard, taking advantage of opposition errors. A Cubs pitcher putting together yet another solid outing, backed up by good relief work when he needed it. A gorgeous evening, the fourth straight day of outstanding summer weather.
You could have been forgiven if Saturday night's 6-4 Cubs win over the Cardinals gave you 2008-era flashbacks. The Cubs played that way; so did the Cardinals.
Reality: St. Louis is still in first place in the N.L. Central (tied with the Pirates entering Sunday's action), and the Cubs remain 14 games behind, eight games under .500.
But there are beginning to be signs that the team calling Wrigley home is becoming much improved.
One of those signs is Matt Garza, who is having the best stretch of starts not only of his Cubs career, but perhaps his entire major-league career. He gave up two earned runs for the first time in his last six outings, leaving the mound for Matt Guerrier to a loud ovation, slapping his glove on his thigh in frustration that he couldn't get that one last out to finish the seventh inning. Even so, in those six starts he's thrown 43⅔ innings, allowed 34 hits and 10 walks, struck out 38 and posted a 1.24 ERA. Interesting statistical note:
Garza was vying to become 1st #Cubs pitcher in 61 years to go 6 straight starts of at least 7 IP with 1 or no ER since 1952.— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) July 14, 2013
(FWIW, that pitcher was Warren Hacker, who did it from August 24-September 20, 1952 (with a scoreless relief appearance thrown into the middle of that streak, too).
This is coming just as trade rumors fly fast and furious about Garza (tease! Kevin Aumiller will have a summary of these rumors right here at 10 a.m. CT). Many people think Saturday night's start might be Garza's last in a Cubs uniform. Personally? I think unless the Cubs get absolutely blown away with an offer, they might just keep Garza and either extend him or make a qualifying offer before next year so that they'd get the draft-pick compensation if he leaves.
There was plenty to like about Saturday's game beyond trade rumors. Garza gave up a single run in the second inning, then the Cubs batted around in the bottom of the frame and scored three, taking advantage of some shoddy St. Louis defense. Carlos Beltran made an error, helping a run to score, and Cardinals backup catcher Tony Cruz committed catcher interference with Darwin Barney batting. Then Garza pushed a bunt that no Cardinals infielder could handle, loading the bases, and Starlin Castro drove in a run with a single. Castro went 2-for-5 and should have been 3-for-5; his hard smash in the fourth inning was ruled an error on David Freese. It could easily have been ruled a hit.
Garza was also hit by a pitch. The last Cubs pitcher to be hit by a pitch before Saturday night was... Garza, who had a HBP September 11, 2011 against the Mets. It's as rare as you might think; since 1980, this has happened just 22 times, averaging less than once per year.
The Cubs also played long ball; Alfonso Soriano led off the third with a solo shot and Luis Valbuena hit a two-run homer in the fourth, giving the Cubs a 6-1 lead and quieting the large number of Cardinals fans who had invaded Wrigley Saturday night. The Cubs lead the National League in doubles (183) and extra-base hits (299).
Since I've been critical of Valbuena in the past, let me say this now: this is one of Theo & Jed's better pickups, rescued from the waiver wire just before Opening Day 2012. Valbuena has done everything asked of him and more; he plays good defense, draws walks and hits for occasional power. When the Cubs get Kris Bryant to the big leagues, Valbuena will be a good utility player; he's no star, but for a refugee from the scrap heap? A useful addition.
Then it was up to the bullpen. Guerrier, who relieved Garza with two out and two on in the seventh, got Matt Adams to fly to left, ending the inning. In the eighth, Blake Parker got into trouble not all of his own making. Julio Borbon dropped a catchable fly ball hit by Yadier Molina (who got the day off from starting on his birthday, and who got a loud ovation from the Cardinals fans when he showed up on the on-deck circle to pinch-hit) when trying to either avoid or brace himself against the right-field pads, loading the bases. Matt Carpenter made it 6-3 with a sac fly.
In the ninth, Kevin Gregg should have been out of the inning 1-2-3, or at least 1-2-3-4. After Gregg got the first two outs, plate umpire Wally Bell inexplicably decided he was going to squeeze the strike zone (which was pretty small all night). Gregg walked Adams and Freese; I thought he had both of them struck out at one point or another. Jon Jay drove in Adams to make it 6-4 before pinch-hitter Pete Kozma grounded to Castro (who had another solid day in the field as well as at the plate) to end it.
It could be that some of the scouts on hand Saturday night at Wrigley Field were there watching Gregg, who posted his 17th save (he had just 23 in a full year as a Cub in 2009), not Garza. Gregg should be of great value to a number of different teams (Tigers, Braves, perhaps others), and there's a perfect example of someone who should be traded. He's 35, not part of the long-term future of this team, and has never been this good in his career. Trade him while his value is still high.
Garza, though? He's tentatively scheduled to make his next start July 22 against the Diamondbacks in Phoenix. I could be wrong, of course, but I think he makes that start.
Meanwhile, the Cubs have a chance to win this series and even up the season series with the Cardinals in a matchup of All-Star pitchers (Travis Wood vs. Adam Wainwright) Sunday night. Since the Cubs lost to the Cardinals in St. Louis June 20, the Cubs are 13-8, the Cardinals 9-10. A win would send the Cubs to the break on a high note, and of course it's always better when the team on the losing end is the Cardinals.