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SportsTuesday

By Jim Coffman

The Cubs have gathered themselves, haven't they? And now they are surging forward. Of course you can't be sure this will last, but the starting pitching, the key in baseball every time, has settled into a groove of late and it therefore isn't even a little surprising the North Siders are on a roll. It helps that they are in the midst of a long homestand, no doubt. But still . . . this is a team that could very well run away and hide atop the Central Division in the second half of the season. And if they do pull that off, I hope folks will remember how grim it was in June, when the team was struggling desperately to stay at .500 and everyone was just hoping they wouldn't fade away. Now the division is clearly up for grabs. The Astros for goodness sakes, who struggled mightily out of the gate, have rallied back into contention.

Even the Pirates haven't given up hope. They were only six games back at some point in the last week when I studied the standings. OK, I take that back. The Pirates have no chance whatsoever. But everyone else does in the Central unless the Cubs win 20 of 22 and separate themselves. And it is right there for them. Their starting pitching, with fifth starter Randy Wells notching his fourth victory in a row Monday evening (no one has done that for the Cubs since . . . Kerry Wood), is considerably better than anyone else's in the National League, except perhaps the Dodgers. Brewer left fielder extraordinaire Ryan Braun said as much in the aftermath of the Cubs' impressive steamrolling of Milwaukee over the weekend. Braun noted that as long as the Cubs' starting pitchers were able to keep their heads while those about them were losing theirs (Brewer starters fell behind early in three of four games with the Cubs Thursday to Sunday), the Cubs would have the overall edge in the NL Central.

Of course we're hoping the Cubs will do better than a few games-and-out in the playoffs should they happen to find a way to win the division for a third consecutive year (a totally unprecedented achievement in these parts) - or the wild card. But of late we've been reminded again of just how hard it is to win the division. So let's enjoy a second half push toward that goal, a push that has a great chance to be successful. We should be oh so lucky enough to have a third straight shot at the NL playoffs. That's all we need worry about now.

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Does the Cubs' huge payroll (what is it, about $130 million?) diminish what they are doing? Have the Cubs simply bought success? No. And even if they have, so what? The Cardinals make all sorts of money now that the good taxpayers of Missouri have by and large built them a new ballpark filled with the latest revenue streams. But their owners haven't increased payroll at all. In fact, I think it went down between last year and this year. So they just pocket the cash and hope that the miracle workers, manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, will continue to conjure up their magic. It was going well for a while and they do have the best hitter in the game in Albert Pujols (although there is actually some noise out there that the Cardinals might not re-sign him - are you kidding me Redbirds? - hey Cardinal fans, if they don't re-sign Pujols while claiming the market does not allow it, you are the biggest sucker in the world if you ever buy a ticket again. The games look good on TV - if you don't have Hi-Def, go to a bar, toss back a few cheap Buds and celebrate the fact that they ain't gettin' any more of your money).

Management has been willing to spend, spend. spend ever since 2003, especially on keeping guys who have already made their mark in Cubbie Blue (Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano lead the hit parade) and good for them for doing it. We'll see if the Cardinals can somehow hold it together this year despite inferior talent, but it says here they won't. The Astros have come on lately and the Brewers are tough again, but neither of those teams, nor the Cardinals, have nearly as much talent as the Cubs.

And there were reports yesterday that Tom Ricketts had finalized his purchase of the Cubs from the Tribune Co. We already know a lot about Ricketts (longtime Cub fan - met his wife in the bleachers, yada, yada, yada) and we will learn more in the coming months. But one thing we know for sure is there is no way in the universe he will slash payroll and allow the team to fall out of contention. The good times will continue to roll for Cubs fans as well as for the drunken good timers who, by the 10s of thousands, continue to masquerade as Cubs fans.

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A quick shout-out to Andy Roddick after he did America proud at Wimbledon; yes, I root for Americans in international competitions without thinking about it - there are a variety of reason to watch sports . . . the talent on display, the special-ness of the venue, the excitement of the competition itself - but after about a half hour, if you don't have a horse in the race, it is time to adjourn to the bar.
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Roddick was our horse in this year's men's final and he absolutely did not disappoint. After losing 16-14 in an unbelievably long fifth set, Roddick was still stuck with only one major win, the 2003 U.S. Open. But he fought valiantly against the super Swiss-man, Roger Federer, who must now be dubbed, without question, the greatest tennis player ever by the way. And his efforts were very much appreciated by this sports fan.

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SportsMonday appears in this space every week, sometimes on a Tuesday. Then we call it SportsTuesday. Jim Coffman, one of the city's finest sporting minds, is your impresario. He welcomes your comments.

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