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September 2009 Archives

Cold reality

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It was a chilly-but-not-so-chilly night at Wrigley last night for my final Cubs game of the season. It was actually fairly comfortable as the wind from earlier this week had died down a bit, and also because the Funhouse on Addison was not filled to the brim as usual. It's a strange thing to look out and see the bleachers maybe only two-thirds full. On the 200 level, an usher who saw me and my brother standing against the railing walked up and told us to just sit where we want.

I hadn't seen Wrigley that way for a night game since 2002, possibly earlier. Of course, the fan vibe following the club this last week of the season is something like it was back then, before we got used to winning but not winning it all, a feeling perhaps more frustrating than anyone would have expected back in 2002.

The Cubs have been very good for the last 10 games or so, a time period that directly coincides with the suspension of Milton Bradley. They are also 17-10 as they enter the last two games of September (double header today), a final month record that would suggest postseason any other year. They have gotten two complete-game shutouts from their starting rotation within the last few games, including last night's 6-0 low-pressure win over the Pirates by Ryan Dempster. The Cubs, with an 82-74 record, also are in a good position to finish the season with a better record than they did when the won the division in 2007 at 85-77.

But, the cold reality is that the Cubs were mathematically eliminated from play-off contention last night with a win by the Colorado Rockies. The cold reality is that they may finish stronger than any National League team except the Wild Card-hopeful Braves, yet the season for them will end this Sunday when the final regular season pitch is thrown.

They still sang "Go, Cubs, Go" when Demp finished off the Pirates last night, but everyone in the crowd, which was surely somewhere under the paid attendance of about 35,000 and shrank further after the 7th inning stretch, knew the remaining wins will not add up to much but positive thoughts for next year, and maybe more regret about what could have been this year.

Pair of aces

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Jake Peavy, the new ace of the White Sox pitching staff (even though Mark Buehrle still officially holds that place in the rotation) and Carlos Zambrano, the old ace of the Cub staff (the new one is Ted Lilly) both pitched last night like it meant something, like their respective teams still might have a chance to make the postseason. This is not true of the Sox, and only barely mathematically-supportable for the Cubs.

Peavy through 7 shut-out inning and put his superior National League fielding stuff on display in a 2-0 Sox win over Detroit, which is still in 1st place but looking susceptible to a last-minute surge by the Twins. (How would Sox fans like it if prevailing in this weekend's final home series against Detroit actually helped the dreaded Piranhas move into 1st place? Honestly, I would rather the Sox roll over this weekend--Detroit sucks, yes, but it deserves a little uplift, if only for Ernie Harwell's sake.)

Peavy gave the Sox a glimpse of what could have been had he not suffered from lingering injuries the last couple months, as well as a glimpse of what is to come. Let's hope his mental toughness can inspire the Sox bats to wake up next year, too. His effort last night was saved only by a two-run homer from Gordon Beckham. Peavy will provide a nice foundation for next year, but the Sox will need a busy off-season and tough spring training to build on that foundation.

Zambrano pitched a 3-0 complete game victory against a legitimate play-off contender, the Giants (though their hopes are fading fast), and with Cy Young winner (reigning and possibly still champion after this year's votes are tallied) Tim Lincecum throwing for the Giants. It was Zambrano best game since his no-hitter against the Astros more than a year ago. Yes, once in a while, Big Z keeps his alter ego, Zammy the Clown, at bay and shows you what he is truly capable of: Complete-game shut-out stuff on the mound, including 8 Ks, 1 BB and just 2 hits allowed; and success at the plate--2 RBIs out of the Cubs' 3 total, including a run-scoring double and a tremendous effort to beat out a throw at 1st base, which thwarted what would have been an inning-ending double play and allowed a run to score.

But, is it enough to see this version of Zambrano just once or twice a year? He says he wants to stay in Chicago, but has never been able to remain composed enough to show us a performance like this on a consistent basis. Will next year be the year?

Sox out of it, Cubs still alive

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A few days ago, I wouldn't have believed you if you told me the White Sox would be mathematically eliminated from winning the A.L. Central Division before the Cubs would be mathematically eliminated from winning the N.L. Central Division. (I know they have both essentialy been out of it for a while, but indulge me.)

A lot of us were looking ahead to 6 remaining games against Detroit for the Sox, with the assumption they first would take at least 2 of 3 from the visiting Twins (who of course would be haunted by their late-season failure against the Sox last year) and Detroit would continue to stumble their way into the Windy City this weekend.

Instead, the Sox were swept by Minnesota and Detroit kept winning through last night, officially eliminating the Sox from contention (With 9 games left, they are also listed as 18 games out of the Wild Card, so...). Now, the Sox have to win all of their remaining games just to have a winning record this year. Ouch.

The Cubs, despite all their troubles and distractions, somehow still survive for at least one more day after posting an unlikely 3-2 win in San Francisco last night. How unlikely? They were down to their last strike, losing 2-1 (which of course means the Cardinals magic number of 1 was a strike away from dropping to 0), but Jeff Baker hit a 2-run homer to give them the lead and Carlos Marmol survived a shaky 9th inning (Get used to those last seven words, as you're likely to hear them a lot next year).

The Cubs also are 6.5 out of the Wild Card with 10 games left. If the Rockies go 2-7 in their own remaining 9 games, the still-contending Braves go 6-4 in their own remaining 10 games, and the still-contending Giants and Marlins each go 6-3 in their own remaining 9 games, well, the Cubs could have a shot at the Wild Card--they would only have to avoid losing for the rest of the season, finishing with an 11-game winning streak and 15 of 16 run. Do you believe in miracles?

Suspending belief

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Milton Bradley was suspended for the rest of the season after taking almost all season to find the limit of Cubs GM Jim Hendry patience. Good move, I guess. It really doesn't matter at this point after they spent too much time trying to salvage something of value from the wreckage caused by the collision of his hitting slump and his attitude.

I'm actually a little surprised that it happened at this point. Won't suspending him now before the season is over and talking to everyone about what a jerk he is actually make it even harder to trade him than it would have been before? If the Cubs had shipped him out a couple months ago, they probably wouldn't have gotten much and still would be paying his salary, they could have claimed "it just wasn't a good fit," and that they were just trying to "do the right thing" for Bradley, etc. Now, they will in effect be saying, "This guy's a cancer. You want him? And, by the way, can you give us a player of modest value in return?"

Good luck, Jim. Or, maybe it will be another GM trying to make that move...

It seems like Bradley's suspension also opens the door for him to make more accusations about the Cubs and their fans. I'm surprised we haven't heard anything yet.

Giving up

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"If they give up on me, then I give up on them." --White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen, after Thursday's 4-3 loss to Seattle.

If you are the type who believes that Guillen is a great manager because he "tells it like it is," then you may be getting a little bit of perverse enjoyment of the Sox' current late-season implosion. The vitriol spilling from Guillen in the last few days rivals anything he's said this season and perhaps any of the toughest lashings he's administered in his time leading the team.

His answer to the loss in Seattle was to beat up the team after the game and to do it again before last night's game against the Royals, which the Sox eventually lost 11-0, and in which they didn't even look as good as the "0" suggests.

Perhaps they are as terrible as Guillen has repeatedly said, but at what point is he going to try a tactic other than magnifying how bad things are going? It may be too late now, but perhaps Guillen should try (or should have tried) some different motivational techniques, like reminding the players how close they are to 1st place, reminding the veterans that they never gave up last year and won Game 163 and reminding all of them that the core and spirit of a World Series Champion lives on in this group. In short, issue a wake-up call instead of a beating.

Meanwhile, though Guillen finally moved the slumping Jermaine Dye and Alex Rios out of the line-up Friday night (though it didn't seem to help), he previously had complained a lot about the limp line-up without really doing anything to change it up.

Finally, though the line-up is the glaring disappointment, the bullpen has been pretty bad, pitching the Sox out of many games recently. The bullpen's make-up has changed a lot, and recent acquistions and call-ups haven't worked out, but the real disappointments there have been Scott Linebrink and Bobby Jenks. Linebrink really seems to fall off his game as the season progresses--he showed it last year with the Sox and in Milwaukee before that. Jenks has as many blown saves as Kevin Gregg, the guy who lost his closer's job across town. There may be few other options for the Sox, and that's why Guillen and Ron Cooper need to figure out what's really going on with those vets.

Maybe the Sox have problems that only off-season personnel changes can fix, and that Guillen ultimately can't affect the necessary change on his own. But, I think there's a good debate to have about who's giving up on whom. This is the same song we hear from Guillen every time things get tough, and the players either have tuned it out, or no longer automatically respond. So, maybe Guillen needs to re-think his approach. If the players give up, or appear to, that's when the manager really has to earn his keep.

Guillen will have a Cy Young winner, Jake Peavy, starting for him tonight. I wonder what Peavy, the notoriously tough competitor, will think about his new manager's attitude.

Trade fate

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Carlos Zambrano couldn't hold onto a 4-0 lead Tuesday night after a promising and antic-free first four innings of the game. As he let the Brewers take a 5-4 lead with 2 outs in the 5th inning, the emotions rose to surface once again with on-field displays of disgust both at his fielders and seemingly at his pitching coach--Zammy the Clown acted like Larry Rothschild was invisible as he came out to the mound (Rothschild, by the way, hasn't always earned his great rep with the Cubs in my opinion, but his starters have been great for the most part this year and in any case no one deserves the baby-sitting duty of handling Zambrano).

You could tell then and there before Rothschild left the mound that Zambrano was done for the night. The Cubs were not, though, as they went on to win 13-7, showing a rare patience for accepting walks. Geovany Soto also homered, continuing a recent quiet comeback in what has otherwise been a disappointing year for Geo.

With losses by the Cardinals and Rockies, the Cubs are now 8.5 games out of 1st place in the NL Central and 6 games out of the Wild Card, just enough in both cases to keep fans interested in how close the Cubs may get before their time is up. Should we dare to dream that the Cubs can sweep the Cards in St. Louis and get back in the race? (Don't, just don't)

Instead, let's stick with speculating on the fate of Big Z. The Tribune suggests today that Zambrano could be asked to wave his no-trade clause during the off-season as they shop him around. Zambrano has toyed and teased with fans this year that he wanted out of Chicago, and his ongoing cry-baby act (alternating with ill-advised machismo about his hitting) has not exactly further endeared him to anyone.

There are a number of teams that probably would be willing to put up with Zambrano's flashes of kookiness for the smattering of games where he shows off his true talent as a pitcher. I would like to see him traded (along with Milton Bradley, which I think would give the Cubs the happy and tension-free clubhouse they seemed to have in 2008). However, I think when faced with that possibility and having the decision put in his hands, Zambrano will flinch and re-commit himself to the Cubs.

Do I think he'll change? No. There will be more antics next year, but as long as the Cubs put their faith in Ted Lilly as their ace and Ryan Dempster as a reliable No. 2, they can settle for Zambrano going something like 11-10 next year as the No. 3 starter. Who knows--maybe Randy Wells or Rich Harden (or Harden's replacment) becomes the No. 3. Then, the Cubs can take what they can get out of Zambrano, maybe even occasionally using him as a pinch-hitter since it would only be an end-of-rotation starter they're risking. Zambrano would love that, and then when the Cubs get to the postseason, they won't have to risk handing the ball to the head case at the end of the rotation. Zambrano can sit in the dugout and sulk until the Cubs let him finish off a 12-0 laugher in Game 3 of the 2010 World Series against the Yankees, as the Cubs save their more valuable arms for Game 4 and the sweep.

Meaningless games

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The Cubs and Brewers are set to tilt at Wrigley field tonight (with SBW in the house) to start a four-game series that back in April (or even in July) looked like it would be critical to the postseason chances of both the Cubs and Brewers. Alas, the Cubs faded and the Brewers never really got going.

What you get instead is a series of meaningless games, though if the Cubs sweep and the Colorado Rockies get swept in San Francisco this week, which is a realistic possibility, they could put themselves back in the Wild Card mix (though still behind the Giants, the Marlins, the Braves and, yes, the Rockies). Likewise, the Brewers could makes the Cubs season even more disappointing with their own four-game sweep.

In any case, Wrigley crowds have seemed lackluster lately, late-arriving, early-leaving and, unlike a few weeks ago, barely mustering the energy to boo. I'm not expecting a full house tonight, though it will be a lovely night for a ball game. And you can probably get tickets for every game in the series at bargain basement prices by Wrigleyville standards. Friends of mine coming in from out of town have already scored a pack of bleacher tix for Wednesday night's game for less than half face value.

Firing line

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White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen says he's not worried about getting fired. He joins Cubs Manager Lou Piniella in that sentiment. Both teams have disappointed this year, the Cubs certainly more than the Sox. Yet, while the possibility of Piniella getting fired before he finishes out his contract next year has been discussed openly, I don't think anyone has been calling for Ozzie's head.

The Cubs are above .500, but that's not enough, of course, and they have a lot of excuses for they did not excel this year: Injuries, poorly-executed changes to a 97-win team, a few bad free agent signings, unexpected player slumps. Even so, this team should have done better, and Lou deserves a portion of the blame--along with GM Jim Hendry, certain individual players and the Cubs fan's eternal friend--fate. You could argue Lou shouldn't be back, though the team, despite new ownership, will not be re-building over the off-season. A few changes here and there, but if Lou gets fired at some point, it will be because of a poor start in 2010, not the disappointment of 2009.

Meanwhile, the Sox entered this year, like the Cubs, coming off a first-place finish in 2008. But, the most glaring needs-an everyday offensive and defensive threat in centerfield, better pitchers to round out the starting rotation--weren't addressed, or at least not until very recently. And the solution is more an effort to set the table for 2010 than to improve the team's chances now. The Sox are under .500 in a division that, despite Detroit's best efforts, is seen as under-achieving. GM Kenny Williams has stated as much, though he waited until late in the season to address obvious lingering problems.

So, should we be blaming Ozzie for the poor results? The Cubs have fallen further, but the Sox don't have nearly as many excuses for failing. The Carlos Quentin injury was a big factor, but players like Paul Konerko, Gordon Beckham and Scott Podsednik have had very strong years. Jermaine Dye started strong, but faded; Alexei Ramirez started poorly, but mostly came out of it; the starters, except for Mark Buehrle, slumped for the first two months of the season; and the bullpen was inconsistent. Kenny did acquire players like Jayson Nix, Wilson Betemit and Brent Lillibridge to add depth, though only has had much of an effect.

I guess it all depends on whether you want to blame the players for not performing up to par, blame the manager for not getting their best out of them, or blame the GM for tinkering too much or too little with last year's squad. When I look at the Cubs, I see a manager stuck between a GM who made the wrong moves and players who either under-performed, were injured for long stretches or became selfish distractions. When I look at the Sox, I see a manager whose GM made some moves, though not enough of them, but who still had his core line-up from last season to work with, plus two nice additions (Pods and Beck).

I feel like Ozzie should have gotten more out of this team, though I think he's the best man for the job next year managing a team that is already set up to improve. Basically, like Lou, he needs to start very strong and not allow his team to fall back for any reason. If there were a lot of great manager candidates out there, I might feel differently about both of them.

For the Cubs, I think Lou is the best option and regardless of what happens in 2010 probably will provide a bridge to Ryne Sandberg to manage the Cubs in 2011. If the Cubs win the World Series next year, I think Lou will retire, and if they don't, that there will be a mutual parting of ways. Meanwhile, Ozzie gamely and predictably has said that management will have to fire him eventually--that it's the only way he'll go. Will that be in 2010, or beyond?

Zammy on the prowl

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Carlos Zambrano's alter ego, the clown called "Zammy," was at it again today. After 2 runs scored when Kosuke Fukudome narrowly missed a diving catch for the 3rd out with 2 runners on base in the 3rd inning against the Pirates, Zammy the Clown showed up and started huffing and puffing, throwing several pitches wildly to the next batter, talking to himself and generally looking frustrated.

He even made an almost wild pick-off attempt on the runner at 2nd base. Was Zammy mad that Fukie didn't make the catch despite a valiant effort? Was he mad at himself for giving up the run-scoring hit? Was he mad at the ball for being just a ball? Who knows... Zammy also showed that the back pain that caused him to miss starts sill can't stop him from swinging for the fences. In one at-bat today, he lofted a monster fly ball to the deepest part of PNC park in centerfield, clearly trying to hit a homerun, and when it was caught then jogged back to the dugout shaking his head the whole way. I was shaking my head, too.

At least the Cubs won 8-5, so he didn't completely self-destruct.

Steve Johnson Swings Both Ways!

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SBW welcomes Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Johnson to the ranks of Chicago baseball fans who lead double lives as both Cubs and Sox fans. S.J.'s column today talks about doing away with the tribal loyalties at a time when neither team seems to deserve our exclusive loyalty.

My own evolution as a Cubs-and-Sox fan rose many years ago from feeling some frustration in rooting only for the Cubs, but also the notion that I didn't have to chose between two local teams who never played one another (a tradition which of course has changed over the years). In any case, I think S.J. is dead-on that there are more Chicago baseball fans who SBW than will admit to it.

Increasingly, I'm meeting more casual baseball fans who SBW, or at least claim they do, so perhaps it is coming into fashion, and I hope to have contributed in at least some small part to the new wave, or at least help to chronicle it. The main challenge that these true Chicago baseball fans will face after this season is maintaining dual status as both teams hopefully will improve. It's easy to say you like both teams when both are going nowhere fast this year (though I cling to the possibility that the Sox will survive a late September three-team A.L. Central cataclysm), but the true test comes when they both are doing well and feeding the crazy possibility that we could see another Windy City World Series.

Another big challenge--and one that the column touches on--is surviving the Crosstown Classic North and South Series without tearing your hair out. There's a lot of taunting and ill will that must be endured during each of these three-game sets, but to survive with your sanity intact, just follow SBW's one simple rule:

Always root for the home team.

A little flag-waving music?

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So, Kenny Williams denied that shipping out Jim Thome and Jose Contreras were white-flag trades, even after he indicated he was looking to help Thome get a World Series (sort of implying he wouldn't have that chance if he stayed with the White Sox this season). Then, it's reported in the Tribune and elsewhere that the GM shopped a number of guys last week.

Kenny being Kenny, he said he was just trying to wake up his team, and the 4 wins that followed those trades suggested he did. The debate about whether or not the GM gave up and whether or not he was being sneaky is over-shadowing the fact that both moves were timely and correct. The Thome move is certaintly hard for fans to swallow, and the Sox only got one iffy minor leaguer for him, but it sets the Sox up well for next year, and is already giving Manager Ozzie Guillen more line-up and field position flexibility. It's been interesting seeing Carlos Quentin and Scott Podsednik in the DH role this week, the latter hinting at a creative way of redefining the DH spot with small-ball speed.

The Sox are no worse off right now without Thome. They dropped today's game to the Red Sox, and Podsednik went 3-4 on the DH spot. Rather, they lost because the rest of the line-up only managed 3 hits and Paul Konerko, Alex Rios and Quentin are pretty well mired in slumps.

Meanwhile, the Tigers had another amazing late comeback win and are looking awful tough to beat. The Sox are now 8 games out of 1st place. They play only division foes after Sept. 16, and with 6 games left against the Tigers, and 3 left against the Twins, it's time to hope for the best that those games will actually mean something when the dates arrive. For that to happen, the Sox need to get some help from the Tigers, while also refusing to think about whether or not their GM has waved the white flag.

Summer stays, patience fades

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It was a beautiful day for a crosstown, make-up game, but the home team felt none of the sun, nor any warming adulation from the fans. The White Sox beat the Cubs 5-0 Thursday to formally end the Crosstown Classic North series from back in June.

How differently things looked then for the Cubs. Yes, there were injuries and players sunk into slumps at the plate (some things never change), but the Cubs had a stunning comeback win against the Sox back in June that looked at the time like it might launch them into a much-anticipated run of victories that would result in a division title.

Now, the division title is all but mathematically lost, and the wild card is only marginally more attainable. The Cubs were booed left and right Thursday as the sun and late summer warmth failed to mellow the crowd. The fans now seem to come only to boo and make plans for their post-7th inning stretch social calendars, but the darn Cubs keeping inviting them to do nothing more. Fielding miscues by Alfonso Soriano and others let the game slip away, and each strikeout by Cubs hitters (there were 9, including 3 by Al-So and 2 by Milton Bradley) were met with boos that seemed to build to the shower of ill affection that met Al-So's game-ending K.

The Sox, meanwhile, now in third place and clinging to the hope offered by division match-ups later this month, had to do almost nothing to win this one except run the bases without tripping. The highlight of the game to my mind was the nice throw DeWayne Wise made to nail Jake Fox at the plate in the 7th inning when it was still 1-0 Sox (Should we call it "The Throw" or "The Assist"?) Carlos Torres als had a great start, pitch 7 innings with 6 Ks and no walks, though the Cubs made it easy for him.

Amid the boos, Cubs fans may be somewhat under-appreciating a club that is still in second place, still has a winning record, and won 2 of 3 against the Mets and Astros before Thursday's crosstown loss. We would have been just fine with 67-65 and a shot at the postseason a few years ago. But, who wants to hear that when you were promised another division title (promised it, at least, by last year's amazing success)?

The comeback

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The White Sox had "The Catch" earlier this summer to save Mark Buehrle's perfect game, and now they have "The Comeback," a sweet 4-2 victory in Minnesota. This Sox team has already done something last year's version couldn't do--win in the Horror Dome in September. And, improbable as it seems, they can now say they beat the Twins the last time the two teams ever met on the Horror Dome--it's history after this season.

The Sox scored all 4 runs in the top of the 9th, which they entered down 2-0 and facing Joe Nathan. What could be better than that? All 4 runs were scored with 2 outs? What could be better than that? All 4 runs came after Nathan the Sox were down to their very last strike with Gordon Beckham at the plate. Beckham homered, then Paul Konerko homered, and the hits and walks kept coming as "Joe Cool" completely lost composure.

The division is still there for the taking, despite what you may have heard about white flag trades.

Thome-time is up

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Kenny Williams is as hit-and-miss with trades as any other GM, but the Sox' main man has got to be 10 times more coldly decisive than the Cubs' Jim Hendry, who is sometimes artful and imaginative where Kenny is more pragmatic. And a pragmatic GM is what Sox fans want, even if doing what must logically be done hurts sometimes.

Trading Jim Thome was probably something that had to happen now, even though many of us would have loved to see the hometown boy (sort of--Peoria) and all-around great guy hit his 600th career homerun while in a Sox uniform. But, Thome's also 39, and the already limited dimensions of his value are growing fewer.

Some may say the Sox players already hung out the white flag. If not, this may be it, though the Sox have some able-bodied and speedier players they can get in the line-up a bit more often (Jayson Nix?). Jose Contreras was traded, too, but the Sox may soon get an upgrade with Jake Peavy coming back--assuming he comes back this season. Best to re-assess this season after the exit from Minnesota, however that turns out.

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