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Don't believe the anti-hype

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I saw something in one of the spring training reports the other day that suggested the Cubs were not attracting much national media coverage this spring. And, of course, the White Sox never do, and have lost the only character who would have attracted any.

The news about lack of news comes as Sports Illustrated, which has to pay at least a little attention, has picked the Sox to lose 95 games and the Cubs to lose 96.

If all was quiet on the Arizona front, that's fine by me. I don't think either of our teams will get anywhere near the postseason this year--even with the expanded format. However, I do think that both will at least manage not to suffer 90-loss seasons.

I guess that pins me as an optimist. In regard to the Cubs, I'm not crazy about that label because you get the sense there is still a lot of unfinished business, with at least three key players--Alfonso Soriano, Matt Garza and Marlon Byrd (maybe Ryan Dempster, too?)--possibly ready to be moved once other teams start seeing the need for in-season trades.

As the Cubs stand now, there's the potential for slight improvement over last year, maybe up to 76 or 77 wins, maybe even 80. The best-case outlook depends a lot on whether or not the veterans mentioned above stay in place and do well. It also depends heavily on the performance of Carlos Marmol, who rebounded after starting the spring in terrible fashion.

With the line-up, the biggest questions are at the corners. At first, Bryan LaHair won the job based on last year's slugging between the minors and majors, but promptly went on to suffer a power outage during the spring. Instead, Jeff Baker, starts at first on Opening Day. Joe Mather, who can play third, was the Cubs' best hitter this spring, but recently-soft-hitting Ian Stewart gets the Opening Day start.

Beyond Dempster and Garza, the starting rotation is all new additions. The biggest surprise of the Cubs 2012 roster, of course, is the ascendance of Jeff Samardzija to become the No. 3 starter. I never would have thought we would see the day, but Spellcheck sure earned his spot. Chris Volstad and Paul Maholm join the rotation as well. I'm still a little surprised that the Cubs pushed former starters Randy Wells and Rodrigo Lopez down to the minors--or I should say, surprised that both of them went down. I thought either one could have played the role of long reliever and spot-starter (because you know the latter need while arise).

In any case, I can't say the Cubs aren't putting their best foot forward with the starting rotation, "best" being a relative term, though.

If the Cubs start making moves early in the season, I'll take most of what I've said back. With Theo & Co., we have already seen a change in attitude and many roster changes, but there is also a strong sense that the rebuilding is not even half over. If there are more trades to come, we'll have to be satisfied with watching Starlin Castro strive for another 200-hit season or predicting when Brett Jackson and Anthony Rizzo will debut.

When it comes to the Sox, I'll accept the optimist label. I didn't feel very optimistic when Sox GM Kenny Williams rushed to hire Robin Ventura as manager last fall, as if half the league might steal him first. I didn't feel any more optimistic when the Sox started spring training with atrocious pitching and confusion about where Alex Rios and Dayan Viciedo would play. But, as the spring went on, starting pitching improved and a sharp, young bullpen began to take shape. Meanwhile, Adam Dunn looked like a new man, Paul Konerko looked like the same solid pro he's been for years, Brent Morel showed improvement at the plate, Chris Sale was very effective as a new starter and Ventura himself displayed a natural confidence in going about his job.

There are reasons to be concerned, of course. The Sox may surprise a lot of people if that bullpen is effective, but if guys like Addison Reed, Hector Santiago, Nate Jones and Zach Stewart don't adjust their major league workloads, the bullpen could be this team's undoing. I think most people would say the line-up, so horrible last year, is the main reason to be concerned. Viciedo showed flashes of power in the last week, but had a bad spring. I don't know about Rios or Gordon Beckham, either, but I've seen enough from Dunn, Morel, Konerko an even Brent Lillibridge, as well as some evidence that A.J. Pierzynski still has some life in his bat, to believe the line-up won't leave the starters hanging.

Among starters, I still question if Jake Peavy can get 30-plus starts, and if 20 of those can be quality starts, but with the addition of Sale to the rotation, this looks like yet another Sox team whose most obvious strength is its starting pitching.

What does this all add up to record-wise? I think 78 or 79 wins, for starters, which isn't great, but considering the changes--not only the loss of Guillen and Buehrle, but Carlos Quentin and to some extent Juan Pierre, plus the fact of a first-time manager--it's not bad. The thing is, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Sox squeeze by slightly over .500. The postseason really is out of the question, but this is one year when I'll accept a pleasantly average team working its way to better things next year.

What this all adds up to for GM Kenny Williams remains to be seen. A record around .500 might be enough for Sox fans to call for his head, but it's also probably enough for his boss to keep him in charge.

Demp dominates

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Ryan Dempster has looked good this spring for the Cubs, though never better than Sunday, when he struck out nine in seven shutout innings. Carlos Zambrano has been grabbing headlines over his weight loss and new supposedly serious attitude, and Ted Lilly's injury has been a major concern, but in the middle of it all Dempster has looked fantastic this month and could put together another season like 2008, when he went 17-6.

Also, Tyler Colvin did end up making the team. He leads the Cubs this spring with a .468 average and 13 RBIs. Which one of our outfield vets will pay the price in bench time?

And, finally, Andres Blanco is no longer a Cub, having been shipped to the Rangers. So... Mike Fontenot had better be for real this year.

The Sox lost two split squad games Sunday, though the upside was that Gavin Floyd pitched well in a 5-0 loss to Texas, going six innings with six strikeouts and two earned runs; and bullpen brothers Scott Linebrink, Matt Thornton and J.J. Putz each pitched a scoreless inning in a 10-8 loss to Kansas City.

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.

Somewhere along the way to 81 wins

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Only a week ago, the Cubs were taking three of four from the powerfull Brew Crew, and looked like a team that had their offense and pitching in synch with their best hitter about to return from injury. Since then, they have lost three in a row in such woeful fashion, that they seem less a first-place 89-90 game winner waiting to bust out, and a lot more like the 41-42 team their record says they are. It's hard to look at the last three games and see anyting greater than an 81-81 record at the end of the season.

Not only has the offense gone back to bad habits (even Derrek Lee, though he did manage a 3-run homer yesterday in an 8-3 loss against the Cards), but the injury bug bit again with the Cubbie Moment-style injuries (We prefer Cubbie Moment to Lou's Cubbie Occurrence) to Ryan Dempster and Geovany Soto, outting both out for a month.

Meanwhile, the Cubs sale still lingers incomplete, and you have to wonder how much that ties Jim Hendry's hands as the trading deadline approaches. Not that he would move anyone anyway. He basically has a bunch of under-achieving stars (Whatever happened to Rich Harden by the way? 5 IP, 4 ER, 4 BB yesterday) and a few too-highly-paid, untradeable free agent types.

The funny thing is that the Central Division is so winnable. No one is taking charge. The Brewers and the Cards have both had bad spells, and the Cubs clearly have the best pitching staff among the three (though I'll bet the Cards and Brewers will fight hard over top-tier trade bait such as Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee). If the Cubs could go on a run, winning 5 of 7 here, 3 of 5 there--nothing as demanding as a major winning streak--they could find themselves in 1st place. But, when they win a few this year, they immediately give them back. That's the story of the 2009 Cubs.

Finding their rhythm

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As I write this Sunday night, the Cubs are losing early 6-0, but I'm going to ignore that and say their crisp 7-0 victory of the Dodgers on Saturday afternoon was a great demonstration of a team finding their rhythm.

The Cubs scored 7 runs on 10 hits, scoring on singles, extra base hits, walks, and one homer by Reed Johnson. They did waste a couple of baserunners, and probably should have had more like 10 runs, but they used patience and textbook contact hitting to get other runners home. Ryan Dempster pitched 7 shutout innings and the bullpen was airtight--and don't forget this game was against the best team in the MLB right now.

Milton Bradley was 3-4 for his biggest hit output as a Cub thus far in Wrigley. Johnson continued is hot hitting with a 3-3 outing, and Mike Fontenot continued working his way back from a slump with a 2-3 effort, including a run-scoring doubel and triple. The more even hitting throughout the line-up, combined with ongoing great pitching from the starters looks to me like a sign of good things to come.

The White Sox have been finding their own rhythm, winning with 9th inning runs both Saturday and Sunday against Kansas City, and finishing their first series sweep in ages. Saturday's 5-3 win came after Mark Buerhle pitched quite well, but just not well enough to survive the 8th inning, before the real action began. Old-is-new-again lead-off man Scott Podsednik singled home a run to break a 3-3 tie and Alexei Ramirez added an insurance run on a follow-up single.

Pods factored in another 9th inning rally Sunday as the Sox this time picked up 3 runs in the 9th to break a 4-4 tie, eventually winning 7-4. This time, Chris Getz single in 2 runs and Pods singled home the final insurance run. Bobby Jenks saved both games.

The real story with Sunday's game, however, was that the Sox beat--and beat up on--Zack Greinke, who has been beating everyone this year while giving up less than a run per 9 innings. The Sox scored 4 runs, 3 earned, off of him Sunday by twice getting 2-0ut run-scoring hits, and general pushing Greinke deep into counts. Pretty impressive stuff against the A.L.'s best pitcher this year.

Delayed gratification

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Just like you had to wait a while for this re-cap post, both of our Chicago teams had to wait through long, nerve-wracking 9th innings Sunday before they could collect on wins.

The Sox won the series of the Minnesota Twins Sunday with a 6-1 victory. With Mark Buerhle on the mound, things were moving fast, and he was especially good, wasting none of the energy that it seemed to take for him to get guys out on Opening Day last week. He gave up a homerun earlier, but recorded 15 outs in a row until he was lifted in the 7th inning with the Sox up 3-1. He still looked brilliant as he was nearing 100 pitches, but I'll bet his exit had more to do a desire by the Sox to ease him into a long workload after a problematic spring.

The Twins uncharacteristically recorded 3 errors, one of which led to a Sox run early on, but Jim Thome put the Sox up 3-1 in the 6th with a 2-run HR. In the 7th, Josh Field drove in a run with a single, and Carlos Quentin added a sacrifice fly. In the 8th, Jermaine Dye added a solo HR.

Case closed, you would think, but Clayton Richard started the 9th with 2 BBs and a hit as the game slowed to a near halt. Bobby Jenks came in with the bases loaded and nobody out, but managed to get a ground out and a double play to end it.

The Cubs also had to live through a shaky 9th, again courtesy of new closer Kevin Gregg. The Cubs won 8-5, but entered the 9th winning 8-4. Gregg got the first couple hitters, but with 2 out, he gave up a homerun to Rickie Weeks, who at this point, Gregg should never face again if possible (after a game-tying double on Friday night that led to an eventual Brewers win). After the Weeks HR, Gregg put the next 2 men on, bring the tying run to the plate in the large and dangerous form of Prince Fielder. Gregg pushed the count to 3-2, and got Fielder on what appeared to be a foul tip into the glove of Koyie Hill.

The highlights: The Cubs got 4 of their runs on 4 straight bases-loaded walks in the 4th inning--how's that for symmetry? But, there were bigger highlights than that: Alfonso Soriano led of another game with a home-run. He has 4 HR this year (naturally) had has been the star performer offensively for the Cubs.

Defensively, Reed Johnson made another huge, highlight-reel catch, reach over the wall in right field and stealing what would have been a grand slam by Fielder in the 5th inning. Ryan Dempster was just good enough in this game, and that catch probably kept him in the game a while longer.

The other interesting note is that Johnson had just entered the game a half-inning earlier after Milton Bradley suffered what appeared to be a groin injury running the bases. Let's hope the injury isn't too serious, but that's what you can expect from Bradley, who really hasn't done much in the young season so far.

Here come the Cubs

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According to many observations, the Cubs are basically being handed first place in the National League Central and being told, "Don't screw it up." The key to their whole season will be not to believe any of those observations, and at the same time, not to think about October at all until, say, October.

I'm not surprised so many people are picking the Cubs to win the division again. They have won it two years running, and no other team in their division has upgraded enough to challenge them. Of course, the second part remains to be seen once the season begins. Milwaukee lost its two best starters, and didn't upgrade anywhere else except at closer, and you can argue that Trevor Hoffman's best days are in the past. St. Louis didn't do much either, picking up Khalil Greene at shortstop, but they have a couple great, young arms in the bullpen that will mature this year, and Chris Carpenter is back. Houston, likewise, didn't do too much.

The problem, however, is that all three of those other teams finished at least 10 games above .500 last season. That may show how truly great the Cubs were in '08, but it also shows how good the whole division was. None of those three teams really got any worse during the off-season, though Milwaukee lost the single most talented player in CC Sabbathia. Meanwhile, Cincinnati, a loser last year, did get better, obtaining a good-hitting catcher in Ramon Hernandez and dumping a poor-fielding, free-swinging power hitter in Adam Dunn, while holding onto a very strong core of young players.

So, I think there are really five teams in the play-off contest in the N.L. Central. The Cubs may not only have a hard time winning 97 games again, they also will have a hard time winning the division, but they are certainly capable of doing it.

Here's my prediction for the 2009 starting line-up:

LF Alfonso Soriano
CF Kosuke Fukudome/2B Ryan Theriot (against lefties)
1B Derrek Lee
3B Aramis Ramirez
RF Milton Bradley
C Geovany Soto
2B Mike Fontenot
SS Ryan Theriot/CF Reed Johnson (against lefties)

Lou Piniella's big ambition this spring (other than the since-forgotten idea of moving Soriano down in the line-up) is to create a line-up that makes better us of lefties. That issue may be the only thing keeping Fukie as a starter as the season begins. If he tanks, expect to see an increase in Joey Gathright sightings, though Lou may also just give up on the commitment to lefties and give Johnson the job he probably deserves anyway.

Looking at the line-up, it's obvious the Cubs did not make any of the trades that we suggested last fall, but they did make some deals. They signed a trouble-making, injury-prone hitting-machine named Milton Bradley. I wonder how many plate appareance they will get out of him--I'll be surprised at more than 500. They jettisoned good guy, multi-position wonder Mark DeRosa for, well, for practically nothing as it turns out. They signed 2B/SS Aaron Miles, who now seems like an after-thought with Fontenot having already basically won the 2B starting job-but still a good pick up considering that they also did part with Ronny Cedeno.

What else? They of course parted with Kerry Wood to give Carlos Marmol or new acquisition Kevin Gregg a shot at closer. They dumped Bobby Howry and Michael Wuertz. They picked up speed by signing Gathright, though Gathright's bat is questionable. They lost a quality-hitting, strong-fielding back-up catcher in Henry Blanco, and it's still unclear whether Koyie Hill or free agent signing Paul Bako can pick up the slack, though both reportedly have been good handling the pitching staff. Finally, though not lastly, they sent Jason Marquis packing, giving Sean Marshall, Jeff Samarzdija, free agent signing Aaron Heilman and others a shot at the No. 5 starter job, a job that Marshall seems to have won.

Put all those deals together, and I think you more or less come out even. I still think they essentially downgraded at closer just as Wood was getting comfortable for either a guy who is emotionally unstable (Marmol) or just not as good (Gregg). They lost a very useful, loose dugout guy and increasingly good hitter (DeRosa), but his right-handed bat made him expendable, and picking up two quality switch-hitters (Bradley and Miles) makes up for the loss (and switch-hitter are always favorites of SBW). Meanwhile, Marshall may finally be ready for primetime as the No. 5 mound man.

Speaking of mound men, how about this potential pitching staff:

SP Carlos Zambrano
SP Ryan Dempster
SP Ted Lilly
SP Rich Harden
SP Sean Marshall

RP Jeff Samarzdija
RP Carlos Marmol
RP Kevin Gregg
RP Aaron Heilman
RP Chad Gaudin
RP Neal Cotts
RP Luis Vizcaino

Cotts may have to make it because he's the only lefty in the pen, though I wonder if the Cubs will perhaps trade Vizcaino, Angel Guzman or Kevin Hart for a southpaw to take the spot that might otherwise go to Vizcaino. Except for the closer issue, I think the pitching staff looks good. I don't like Gregg as a possible closer, and he may not be as good a set-up man as Marmol, but he's an obvious upgrade from the fading Howry. Heilman didn't do well in the Mets' pen, but looks great this spring. Among the starters, Marshall is poised for a great year. Harden has been treated with kid gloves this spring and would probably be better as the sparingly-used fifth starter than Marshall.

There's no reason to expect anything worse or better than 2008 from the other three: Zambrano probably will be good between his implosions, Dempster may fall back a bit, but has now proved himself as a starter, and Lilly is still the most reliable pitcher the Cubs have.

What this all adds up to when throw in another utility man here and there (Micah Hoffpauir, maybe Sam Fuld or Jake Fox) is probably a first place team--but not by much. Lee's bat could become a concern, and Soriano, who supposedly will be running more this year, will have to be watched closely. Theriot and Fontenot right now look better than last year, and Bradley is a real threat is he stays healthy. No reason to expect Soto to drop off, and Fukie will either bounce back or be a non-factor by May.

My prediction for the Cubs is first place, maybe 90-72. At worst, I think they'll get the wild card if Milwaukee, St. Louis or Houston manages some magic. My hope is for a World Series, but as good as the team looks, I don't think they look any better prepared for a best-of-five play-off series than they were last year. That doesn't mean they won't do it, but if there's a reason that they can do it this year after going 0-6 in the postseason the last two years, Lou and his players may need to rummage around in their own heads to find it.

Your 2009 Chicago Cubs

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Consider this the first of many off-season posts on the subject of how our teams could shape up for next season...

It was ironic that Alfonso Soriano said after the Cubs' NLDS disaster that part of the problem was the team's "make-up," since it is Al-So who is one of the albatrosses in the line-up. I would like to trade him, as Sox fan Paul Reis suggests, even for just a couple of young supporting players, but who wants him without the Cubs paying most of his contract off? Could he be part of a Brian Roberts deal? Could he be sent to Atlanta, a team that, aside from Chipper Jones, is full of utility men and could use a power-hitting left-fielder enough that they would let him hit lead-off? Toronto, which desparately wants access to the A.L. East race?

I would like to see it happening, but I don't see it happening. So, what about other possible trades? Everyone's upset with the second albatross, Fukudome, but he's almost as untradeable as Soriano. I think teams like the Sox, Yankees, Oakland and others with a keen interest in plate patience, strong defense and good base-running skills, could be interested, but probably wouldn't part with much, would demand more than just Fukudome and would need contract help from the Cubs. The thing is, Fukudome could prove to have a much better second year if he makes a few adjustments, or the Cubs can get him to spend some time at AAA or in an off-season hitting program. I wouldn't give up on him just yet.

Then, there's Jason Marquis. I could see Marquis having value in big parks like Detroit or Seattle, or maybe Baltimore, but it might be good to keep him if Samarzdija isn't ready for a starting role.

More radical trade ideas: Derrek Lee, Marquis and Ronny Cedeno to the Orioles for Brian Roberts, Kevin Millar and whoever else they are willing to give; Soriano and Samarzdija to the Rockies for Matt Holliday; Soriano OR Lee to Toronto for OF Adam Lind, RHP Brandon League and LHP Brian Tallet (all up-and-comers).

Why the pre-occupation with trading D-Lee? Despite brief glimpses at greater potential, he's a low .290s hitter with his best power and speed years behind him at age 33. Yet, he could prove very valuable for a team that needs a 1B with a reliable bat, plate patience and a good glove. He does have a no-trade clause, and probably would rather go home to California than East or North, but maybe he would wave it for a welcoming situation where there wasn't a 100-year burden on everyone's back.

I also don't see the Cubs spending much money of the free agent market after the spending of the last couple years, the realization that free agent spending hasn't brought postseason success and the questions surrounding the timing of the team's sale in a crappy economic climate. I wouldn't be surprised is Jim Hendry is hand-cuffed by the Tribune company from spending much beyond what's needed to extend Harden (done) and re-sign Dempster, Woody and maybe Tatts Blanco. That would mean good-bye to Jim Edmonds, Daryle Ward and Bob Howry, among others. The departure of the first two is seen as likely by many people, but Howry, I think, needs to re-start--again--somewhere else.

Could the Cubs use a free agent like Mark Texeira if they move D-Lee? Definitely. Could they use a free agent like Raul Ibanez if they somehow ship Soriano or Fukudome? Absolutely. Interesting scenarios, but unlikely.

A couple lower-cost free agent signings could include a Howry replacement like Jorge Julio (3.60 ERA, 34 Ks in 30 IP for the Braves this year), and a southpaw specialist--maybe Brian Shouse (2.81 ERA for the Brewers this year). These guys are not total studs, but that is sort of the point.

What other positions are in question? Well, there's manager. I know, Lou's deal was extended to 2010--before the NLDS fiasco that made him look like the rickety old man he appears to be every time he drags his butt out to the mound. Lou's package of confidence-building, occasional risk-taking and subtle line-up tinkering is a big part of what drove the Cubs to two straight division titles. Yet, as the pressure builds again next year, I wouldn't be surprised if we start to see more of crotchity Lou, the one who showed up in Tampa more often than not. I'll say right now I do not think that extension will be fulfilled for one of three possible reasons: 1) The Cubs finish out of division contention next year 2) The Cubs win the division and lose again in the NLDS 3) The Cubs win the World Series. The first two scenarios I think could result in a situation where Lou gets fed up and wants to leave as much as the Cubs (be then under a new owner) want to him to leave. Under the third, Lou decides he can't do any better and it was just to darn stressful, so the Cubs agree to let him retire--oh, and with teh Cubs having won it all, the planet explodes, and there is no 2010 season anyway...

Your 2009 Chicago Cubs starting line-up

Likely version:
LF Soriano
SS Theriot
1B Lee
3B Ramirez
C Soto
RF DeRosa
2B Fontenot
CF Fukudome/Johnson

Radical version:
2B Fontenot (.395 OBP this year)
SS Theriot (the Cajun Connection!)
LF Soriano (Ks dip, HRs and BBs up)
3B Ramirez (More solo HRs, but same overall RBIs)
1B Lee (fading, but still potent N0. 5)
C Soto (they'll pay for walking D-Lee)
RF DeRosa (still streaky good, great value at No. 7)
CF Johnson (Fukie backs up, occasionally starts vs. righties or gets demoted)

Radically unrealistic overhauled-by-trade version:
2B Brian Roberts (Mighty Might again a Sub-Cub)
SS Theriot (some things never change)
3B Ramirez (sees great pitches)
LF Holliday (.388, 74 HRs, 192 RBIs--and has no problem not hitting lead-off)
C Soto (lots of solo HRs)
1B Hoffpauir/Millar (Hoff's power + Millar's fun = D-Lee forgotten)
RF DeRosa (finally settles into one position)
CF Johnson (With Fukie traded, Reed says, "Hey guys, what about me?")

Fight back against despair

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The Cubs blew Game 1 of the NLDS, losing to the Dodgers 7-2 at Wrigley, which by the accounts of some who were there, was as somber as a tomb from the moment the gates opened. Not that the Cubs and their fans look to the Southside for lessons on anything, but the fan-unifying "black out" at The Cell earlier in the week showed how a team and their fans can forget the past and throw themselves into the moment at hand. The Sox stumbled their way to Game 163, but the entire park was nothing but focused energy and excitement.

It's the players, of course, who carry the responsibility to win, energy or not, and Ryan Dempster looked completely uncomfortable in a park where he won 14 games this year. His supposed cold-weather throwing regimen during the 0ff-season seemed to prepare him well for the chilly October night at Wrigley, but he was wild from the start. Seven walks in five innings will doom any pitcher in any game, but issuing two of those walks to the opposing pitcher is an urgent cry for help, a cry that was not heard urgently enough in the dugout. Lou and Larry seemed to want to give Demp the benefit of the doubt, but as some columnists have pointed out this morning, why wait for your starter to find himself in a play-off game when you have other would-be starters sitting in the bullpen? On a cold night, it would not have been a bad idea anyway to get a couple guys up a bit earlier than usual to warm up. True, it's only Game 1, but is is the freakin' play-offs.

Dempster has proven adept all year at getting himself out of jams and avoiding the big inning. his two moments of collapse this year occurred at The Cell, and more recently when he fed Albert Pujols a three-run HR down in St. Louis. But this time, with the bases loaded, Demp hung one right in front of James Loney, an extremely good, but fairly unheralded contact hitter. I would say Demp committed the sin of going of the middle of the plate with a 1-2 count, but it looked like he meant to drop something in front of Loney to either get him fishing or ground into a force play. But, he didn't have the command last night to make it happen--something which was obvious to a lot of us at least a few batters earlier.

The Cubs had their chances on offense to right the ship, of course. They got a wind-blown homer from De-Ro and actually out-hit the Dodgers. Here's perhaps the most amazing fact from last night's game: The Cubs had players reach base in every inning of the game. This one was really a missed opportunity in every respect.

But, getting back to the fan behavior, erasing the collective memory of Cub fandom is not an option. When one thing goes wrong, most Cubs fans are bound to fear the worst. I know my stomach was churning even before the fateful 5th inning, when Demp loaded the bases in the 3rd with Cub-killer Andre Ethier at the plate. But, for lack of a better phrase, we need to find out nuts. We need to bring as much energy and excitement to the task as we expect our teams to bring, even when they let us down a little. I'm not saying cheer mistakes, but at least boo them vigorously for a limited moment and get onto to the next thing. And even when the Cubs are behind, make your voice heard during every Cub at-bat and every big pitch. I'm not an advocate of standing early in games our in favorable pitching counts when there are less than two outs, but there's nothing wrong with using your outside voice a little more. That's what seemed to be happening at Wrigley late in the regular season even when the Cubs were behind, but it seemed absent last night. Lord knows, it may add to the pressure for some and there's more pressure on the Cubs than most, but the pressure is there and the only thing to do is focus and play through it.

Game 2 starts tonight at the chilly hour of 8:37 p.m. The Cubs send Zammy against young strikeout-artist Chad Billingsley, but where last night's L.A. pitcher Derek Lowe is postseason-seasoned and tough to hit, young Chad can be had when he doesn't over-power. If he strikes out a few guys early, the Cubs should be able to learn something for later in the game. So, don't panic. And, someone remind Zammy that even though the situation calls for heroes, actually actually trying to be a hero usually doesn't get him very far. Don't you knda wish Lilly was starting tonight?

Meanwhile, the Sox go early down in Florida, and I like their chance in Game 1, coming off of the energy in Game 163 against a young team that has been sitting around waiting for them. Game on.

Feel the magic

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SBW took a couple days off to tend to real life, and look what happened: The Cubs' magic number is down to 4 and the White Sox' magic number is down to 10. We're getting closer...

The last two games for the Cubs: Oh, not much happened at all, just another near no-hitter, this one by Ted Lilly, followed by another of Woody's heart attack specials. The Cubs finished their "road trip" playing Houston in Milwaukee by demoralizing the Astros for the second straight game, winning 6-1 behind Lilly, who no-hit the Astros into the 7th (though he was not nearly as dominating as Zambrano the night before). The Cubs actually scored in three different innings, which hasn't happened a whole lot lately. Power was back in vogue at the plate, with D-Lee, Geo and Old Man Edmonds all going yard. A-Ram also had a sac fly. the Astros are not out of it yet, but with this two-game run, the Cubs kinda killed the 'Stros momentum. They not only beat a team they have had trouble with this year, but also cooled off the hottest team in the Central Division since the second half started.

We won't give back the wins, but it's terribly unfortunate that these games had to be moved to what was definitely not a neutral site. How can a Cubs fan talk that way? I'm a baseball fan, too, and I don't like when MLB appears to give teams that can provide better postseason ratings a leg up. Moving the games elsewhere may have changed the course of history--maybe Zammy wouldn't have thrown a no-hitter, and maybe the Cubs would have had a tougher time winning both, but it would have been the right thing to do. Instead, I think MLB's favorable treament gave other teams even more reasons to want to beat the Cubs. The third game of the series likely will now go un-played, unless the Astros remain in contention to the final weekend.

Last night, the Cubs came back home from their vacation home in Milwaukee to face... Milwaukee. When the Cubs were swooning, I was not looking forward to this series at all, but the Brewers have been swooning even worse since, and fired manager Ned Yost, a shocking move. Yost may have overseen the Beermakers' swoon, but he was torpedoed by tightly-wound hitters and a terrible bullpen. Still, maybe it's what the Brewers need to make the postseason.

But, if they do make it into October, it will be as a wild card. The Cubs virtually assured themselves the division flag with last night's 5-4 win. If they can sweep the series, they win the Central and make what looked like a murderous stretch of games from now until the end of the season almost meaningless. This one wasn't easy. The Cubs had to face CC, and did well against him for the second time, scoring three runs in the first three innings, but he got better as the game went on. Meanwhile, Dempster piled up Ks early on, but later let Prince Fielder chip away with a mammoth right field HR. Al-So added a solo HR that gave the Cubs a 4-2 edge, but Fielder added another HR, this one almost more impressive because it was muscled out opposite field against filthy Carlos Marmol.

The Cubs added another run for a 5-3 edge in the 9th, which is more often than not the kind of cushion Woody needs. He gave up a run-scoring double to Ray Durham, who is a great clutch hitter going back to his days on the Sox, but if it's possible to make a 96 MPH fastball easy to hit, Woody did just that, pushing it over the middle of the plate just above the knees. After a cheap infield single by Ryan Braun, Woody stared down Fielder with men on 1st and 3rd, two outs. Woody ended up facing the one guy no one wanted to see him face, and as Fielder worked to a 3-2 count and kept fouling of fastballs, this looked like the kind of at-bat the pitcher can't win. But, Woody dropped in a waist-high slider (or curve, some said) that shocked everyone watching, most of all Fielder. Again Woody turned in a final inning that makes you queasy when you think of October games, but he got it done.

The last two games for the White Sox: The bullpen imploded on Sunday, and though the Sox still managed to win, it didn't make you feel good about Monday's game against the Yankees. The Yanks have almost nothing to play for except a small amount of pride in leaving their old stadium on a winning note. Still, with Buehrle starting Monday, things looked OK early on. DeWayne Wise homered for the second straight game, but after Buehrle left the game 2-2, the bullpen couldn't hold and the Sox eventually lost 4-2. More concerning than the bullpen performance, however, was a flat performance by the offense. Dirty 30, filling in for the still-injured Paulie, was 0 for 3 and saw his average go down to .220, though he wasn't the only culprit. The Sox seemed to lack play-off race urgency, but the Piranhas may be having more problems: After losing in Baltimore Sunday despite crushing the O's earlier in the weekend, the Twins lost in Cleveland Monday night. The Sox often have seen the Twins become their main nemesis in the play-off hunt, and the Twins have ruthlessly dispatched the Sox more than once, but this year, it seems like the Twins want to give it away.

Tuesday night was much better for the Sox. Gavin Floyd again proved to be exactly what they needed on the mound, while the offense scored often with power (The Missile fired on into the left field seats) and finesse (Paulie was back and delivered a run-scoring hit, Junior delivered and RBI and both B.A. and uribe and two-out RBIs). Paulie has been building back to full strength, and only last week, his sprained MCL looked like it would kill his momentum, but he seems to have lost no steam at all. The Sox won 6-2, and even though the bullpen had a big lead to work with, scoreless innings by Thornton and Jenks meant a lot in this one. And, hard to believe, but the toothless Piranhas lost again. Thanks, Cleveland.

The Sox are now again 2.5 games up on Minnesota. They have reached this threshold before only to give games back. If they can manage to add just one game to that lead in the next five very winnable games against the Yanks and K.C., they will be in great position going into Minnesota next week. And, while it would be great to clinch the division at home (especially Sept. 26, when I will next be at The Cell), it would also be fun to do it in Minnesota, wouldn't it?

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