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And so it begins...

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The Cubs' pitchers and catchers reported to spring training yesterday, though it sounds like a lot of player are there already and have been for several days. Sounds good to me. Guys like Carlos Zambrano and Geovany Soto are in better shape, and everyone sounds rested and committed.

It's hard to invest too much in the 2010 team, and Lou Piniella sounds no more happy and exuberant than he ever has, but who knows? I'm still looking at this year's club like a probable third-place, worst-case fourth-place team, but with a winning record. Could second-place be too much to dream? Let's stop there.

Skinny Soto

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It seemed like the biggest news to come out of last weekend's Cubs Convention was that catcher Geovany Soto lost almost 40 pounds in the last three months or so. That's a great move for a hefty player (though really he was only averaged-sized by catcher standards) who was nagged by injuries all of last year.

You could often see last year when Geo was struggling that he was still trying draw walks and make opposing pitchers burn through their pitch counts. He actually wasn't much of a power hitter until his Rookie of the Year 2008 season, when he had 23 homers, so with some of the bulk gone, it seems likely will see him slapping out a few more hits and pounding out fewer homers, and that's just fine. Just keep the line moving.

After a .218 season in 2009, it was tempting to wonder if Geo was going to be one of those one-year-wonders quickly broken down by the physical demands of working behind the plate. But, he's a smart hitter already, and now, hopefully, more durable.

Meanwhile, a blogger at ChicagoNOW, Rock Mamola from The Score, is already asking the question that sadly comes to mind in this era of steroids revelations: How did Geo lose the weight, and where did it--and his sudden power in 2007 and 2008--come from in the first place?

In White Sox news, SoxFest is coming up this weekend. The Sox signed closer Bobby Jenks and outfielder/probable DH Carlos Quentin to high-priced (but not high-risk) one-year deals, thus avoiding arbitration in both cases. Solid starter John Danks and disappointing reliever Tony Pena are still arb-eligible.

Maybe Geo can share some of his weight loss tips with Jenks. That would make Ozzie happy.

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.

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.

Bombs away

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Four homers brought some life to the Crosstown Classic South Friday, though the game will be remembered more for the dugout-clubhouse verbal altercation Lou Piniella and Milton Fradley got into in the 6th inning that resulted in Bradley being told to "go home," according to Lou.

Don't expect Bradley to stay home though, unless he's planning on retiring. The incident happened after Bradley threw his helmet after flying out and allegedly busted another water cooler (I think the Cubs players need to start bring their own water bottles to the games with their names on them, like you see in Little League).

I'm guessing this was a tension release on the part of both Bradley, who is still slumping, and Pinella, who basically was called a wimpy wuss in the newspaper yesterday. We'll see, but Piniella claimed Bradley would be in the line-up today.

The incident overshadowed the Cubs' perilous 5-4 win, which included all the Cubs's scoring on 2 homers, a Jake Fox 2-run shot and a Geovany Soto 3-run dinger. Fox homered in his second consecutive game and is making a brilliant case for more playing time when interleague play ends and the line-up loses a hitter. Could Bradley be the one to pay the price? Soto was revealed as a one-time pot smoker (What else is there to do during the World Baseball Classic?), and seems to be a new man at the plate with the burden of secrecy off his back. He has homered twice in three games (He only got 1 AB in the homerless game), and 4 times in his last 8 games.

Of course, it would not be a Cubs game if Carlos Marmol didn't try to give it away. He walked 3 men in the 8th inning, and gave up a single (though it should have been caught by the napping Alfonso Soriano) and a 2-run double by Jim Thome. Sean Marshall relieved him with the bases loaded to face pinch-hitter A.J. Pierzynski, and when Marmol arrived in the dugout, he threw his glove hard against the wall, but was not reprimanded by Lou as far as the TV cameras could tell. Marshall threw one pitch to A.J., who grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Perhaps feeling left out of the post-game gossip, Sox manager Ozzie Guillen called out A.J. for having a "bad at-bat" swinging at the first pitch. There certainly is a case to be made that A.J. occasionally attempts to do too much when he's looking for a big hit, though you shouldn't send him up there expecting patience. He has only 12 walks this year, and only 180 in his entire career (that's about 1.5 seasons' worth of walks for Thome, to put it in perspective).

Thome was the big contributor for the Sox, with 3 RBIs, including a homer off Cubs starter Randy Wells, who now has recorded a win in his last 2 starts after much earlier frustration. Jermaine Dye also had a solo shot, but the Sox otherwise showed only a glimmer of the energy that produced 16 runs in the previous 2 games against teh Dodgers.

Meanwhile, Jose Contreras actually pitched pretty well for a guy who gave up 5 runs (4 ER). He struck out 8 and only walked 1 in 7.1 IP. The homer by Geo in the 7th was the obvious big mistake, though it came after Paul Konerko botched a difficult-but-playable grounder that could have nabbed at least 1 out. Contreras also appeared to have a back problem, though he didn't come out of the game, and not much was made of it later.

I started writing during the 8th inning of today's Crosstown Classic North game that the Sox had completed the sweep (sort of--the series won't officially be over until September). I either jinxed the Sox, or turned around the luck of the Cubs, depending on how you want to look at it.

The Cubs won 6-5, today, literally minutes after being down 5-1 and exhibiting again that they could not drive in runs even with a man on 3rd and no outs. It all happened in the bottom of the 8th. Milton Bradley struck out for out No. 2 while Micah Hoffpauir waited on 3rd and Alfonso Soriano, who moments before proved he was still alive by notching a basehit, waited on 1st base. Bradley was walking around the dugout with his bat still in his hands and his helmet still on, so stunned he may have been by his and other hitters' inability to convert baserunners into scoreboard digits. Then, almost at the instant the TV picture returned to the home plate, Derrek Lee, the one Cub who has been on a tear, plunked a 3-run homer into the basket. Moments later, Geovany Soto added a solo shot to tie the game 5-5.

And, suddenly, there was life... Reed Johnson started the bottom of the 9th, score still tied, with a single, was moved over to second on a perfect bunt by Andres Blanco, and scored the game-winner on a bloop single by Soriano. Yes, boys, it's that easy.

I literally had been very near giving up on the Cubs for the year, as dramatic as that sounds. Now, I'm going to wait until at least tomorrow. Prior to Lee's homer, I was just sick of things not working, and sick of Lou Piniella's What-am-I-supposed-to-do stance, which yesterday evolved into an I'm-about-to-do-something-but-not-quite-yet stance. I didn't see where Lou had any options, unless he moved Soriano to 2nd base to get the hotter, younger bats of Jake Fox and Micah Hoffapauir into the outfield. Bench Kosuke Fukudome for Johnson? Sure, but the problem has been that not enough of the dots have been getting connected on offense. It almost hasn't mattered how much talent allegedly was behind those dots.

That was happening again in the 8th inning until the consecutive homers, and I'm not sure everything was fixed by those miracles. We'll see. The changes that may need to be made might be in Jim Hendry's hands, rather than Lou's.

So, the Cubs earned a split with the White Sox after the Sox cruised to a 4-1 victory yesterday. They still looked great today, with Gavin Floyd silencing the Cubs and The Missile, Chris Getz, Gordon Beckham, Brian Anderson and Paulie all contributing timely hits today. Getz also unfortunately contributed a poorly-timed error to allow Hoffpauir on in the 8th. And, the bullpen that I've felt would come to be the Sox' second-half charm blew it today, though the loss was really on the hands of Scott Linebrink, who struck out Bradley, but then gave up the consecutive homers.

It's hard to tell how good the Sox are from this trip to Wrigley--they are 31-35. Yesterday, the used great fundamentals and a little power plus a knockout performance from John Danks to beat up on a Cubs team that looked broken down completely. Sox fans should take more from the last two impressive victories against the slugging Brewers than these two contests. While I'm hoping Hendry is going shopping, I'm hoping Kenny Williams is staying home at least a little longer.

Can't win situation

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The Cubs tumbled to their eighth loss in a row by inventing a new way to lose. This time, in a 10-8 loss, the pitching was the culprit and the offense was almost good enough to survive--almost.

The Cubs collected plenty of hits and what should have been plenty of runs. They got strong performances from player who were either still mired in slumps (Milton Bradley, Geovany Soto) or had dropped off from strong starts (Ryan Theriot). But, poor pitching by Ryan Dempster, Neal Cotts and Aaron Heilman and a 6-6 performance by the Pirates' Freddy Sanchez was too much too overcome.

Some game reports today are wondering aloud when Lou Pinela will lose his cool. Unfortunately, he's already lost it out and not much has changed. Will seeing Lou wobble out on the field to yell at an umpire change anything now? Usually, I'll advocate that approach just because I think it helps press a reset button for players who can't seem to find their own edge. The trouble is that this Cubs team has done plenty of its own complaining already, courtesy of Bradley's dissing of umpires. Though I've wanted to see Ozzie get a little more excited on the Southside and maybe shake up a game by leaving the dugout now and then, I'm a little afraid the approach could backfire for the Cubs and give the umps more of a chip on their shoulder when they come into Wrigley Field.

The Cubs fell under .500, though at 21-22, things could still be worse. Last night's game was the rare poor pitching outing for the Cubs staff, and that shouldn't continue to be a problem. We'll see in the next few games if Bradley and Soto have really found themselves. That will be a start.

Looking for the bottom

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The Cubs have lost seven straight, their worst run since the bloody awful season of 2006. The culprit is the anemic offense, which has been a problem all season, but now the slumps and injuries that were affecting a few players in April have spread to the whole team like--wait for it--swine flu.

The best hitter on the team, Kosuke Fukudome, has cooled off, though he continues to look sharper than last season by drawing walks even when he's not hitting. Ryan Theriot lost touch with his brief power surge and isn't scratching out multi-hit games like last year, and Alfonso Soriano has faded after a strong start. Derrek Lee, Geovany Soto and Milton Bradley have shown glimpses of promise, but mostly remain mired in the doldrums that have affected them since Opening Day. Aramis Ramirez remains on the sidelines and Mike Fontenot, perhaps feeling the pressure of being a multi-position starter, has all but lost his job. Don't even get me started on Aaron Miles.

When Lou Piniella is talking about moving Al-So to second base, you know your troubles have almost hit bottom. But, have they hit bottom yet? We may find out when Pittsburgh hits town tomorrow, a brief respite for the Cubs between the hot-running opponents of the last week (Cardinals and Padres) and a face-off vs. 2008 postseason nemesis the Dodgers, who are 2009's best MLB team thus far. Yet, while the Cubs have recently faced teams who were playing very good baseball, the losing streak is undoubtedly of their own making. Pitching has been at least adequate and often very good in the last seven games. The most startling offensive stat: The Cubs have no walks in their last two games.

How long can it go on, and could hitting coach Gerald Perry be the fall guy, if the Cubs continue to play far below the unreasonably high expectation we have come to have for them? Perry's greatest accomplishment has been getting hitters to be more patient about begging off pitches away from the center of the plate. But, suddenly, the player have forgotten the lesson they seemed to learn so well last season.

The fans are getting pretty agitated and will be more so if the Cubs fail to win a couple against Pittsburgh. There's already quite a bit of grumbling about the Bradley signing being a bust, and the delicate relationship between him and the fans could be nearing a breaking point. I don't think moving Soriano is the answer, and I'd actually rather see D-Lee sit to get Micah Hoffpauir in the line-up. I have to credit Lou for experimenting with the line-up, but nothing seems to be working. Perhaps a visit from minor league stud Jake Fox is in order. The only other thing to really look forward to, short of the current line-up wking up, is the return of Aramis Ramirez, which as probably at least a month away.

The-Riot delivers some chaos

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"You can't quiet The-Riot."--Slogan on T-Shirt seen outside of Wrigley Field.

Other than the resurgence of Kosuke Fukudome and the more patient hitting of Alfonso Soriano, the one thing a slumping Cubs offense has been able to count on this year is Ryan Theriot, who always manages to get a hit or two.

Well, today he had the unexpectedly big hit, a grand slam that rallied the Cubs from a 5-2 deficit against the Marlins, and that re-awakened Wrigley fans from their grumpy drunkeness. It was Theriot's first career grand slam, and it could happen to a more deserving guy, who even when he's not hitting manages to force pitchers to burn their arms by going deep into counts.

The Cubs eventually won 8-6 in a game in which Rich Harden started poorly and only got worse, lasting 3.2 IP with 5 ERs and only 2 Ks against 4 BBs. There were a couple signs of resurgent offense in this one (though we thought that was the case the other night in Arizona, too--we'll see if it sticks). Most notably, beyond Theriot's blast and a couple of timely walks drawn by the Cubs, two slumping Cubs came alive, Derrek Lee was 2-4 and Geovany Soto was 2-3 with an RBI.

The bullpen was sufficient in this one, with closer Kevin Gregg yielding the only Marlins run after Harden left the game. Still, Carlos Marmol was shaky for the second straight game, walking 2 to open the 8th inning, but battling back to strikeout the side. Neal Cotts was pleasantly unsucky, giving up a walk but striking out 2 in his scoreless inning on the mound. Still, the bullpen walked 5 men total, which ain't good even if only one run scored in 5-1/3 of work.

It's still early, he says

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Rockies 5 Cubs 2
Cardinals 7 Cubs 4

Tigers 9 White Sox 0
White Sox 3 Rays 2

Again had a few problems with BlogSpot earlier today and so I'm catching up:

Rockies 5 Cubs 2--My first trip to Wrigley this year. Not much has changed, thankfully, except for the Captain Morgan's Club monstrosity along Addison which further clogs of the sidewalks. Why doesn't someone close Clark and Addison already on game day?

I'm just grumpy because the Cubs never got it going against an old mate. Jason Marquis had his ups and downs as a Cub, and as he pitched against his former teamates as a member of the Rockies, he looked a lot like his Cub self: A very hittable pitcher who gets into plenty of jams, but sometimes finds his way out via a timely ground-out, strikeout or--in one case--a strike-him out/thrown-him-out double play.

Colorado beat the Cubs 5-2 Wednesday as SBW watched from the cheap seats, in a game where you kept anticipating a Cubs comeback that never quite happened, right down to the fizzled bottom-9th attempt at a rally. That inning started with a Derrek Lee solo homer (The crowd was on D-Lee at the start of this one for his slow start this season, but he went 3-4 in this game.) The Cubs added 2 baserunner and had Geovany Soto (the tying run) at the plate with no outs.

But within a couple of minutes, the game was over: Mike Fontenot made an ill-advised attempt to advance from second to third on a pass ball. From my lofty perch, it looked like he left late and that the ball didn't get all that far away from Rockies catcher Chris Ianneta. Why he was in such a rush to advance is anyone's guess--if he get's to third and scores on a sac fly, the Cubs would still be down 5-3. Lou could not have been happy.

Next, Geo, who was in his first game back from a shoulder injury and looked pretty rusty the whole game, grounded into an easy double play. The Cubs blew some earlier chances with runners on, but tying run at the plate with no outs will be the hardest to forget. Micah Hoffpauir had an RBI double for the first run, by the way, and Fukie still has his mojo.

The other story of this one was that Rich Harden had a very strange outing, only 3.2 IP, but 8 Ks and 4 BBs. Lights out in the 1st inning, and then increasingly hittable and wild after that. Marquis drove in 2 runs. Soriano let a run score on an error. What else? Neal Cotts was brought in to face lefties, but could get them out--remember that one for later.

Cardinals 7 Cubs 4--Today was just as frustrating, if not more so, as the Cubs squandered some early BBs courtesy of Cards pitcher Adam Wainwright. Milton Bradley made a surprise appearance as a pinch hitter with the bases juiced and was called out on strikes and then thrown out of the game for arguing--get used to that. Bradley started off with the count 3-0 and then looked like he didn't want to swing. I'm sure he would have gotten a pinch-runner if he got on, but he looked extremely tentative, and while Bradley and the crowd got on the home plate ump, it looked to me like he let 3 straight strikes blow right by him.

Other than that, Fukie again showed up when few others did, stroking a 3-run homer. he was caught stealing for the second game in a row--needs to work on that. D-Lee had a sac fly for the other Cubs run.

On the mound, Sean Marshall was definitely at least adequate, with 5 IP, 3 ER and 4 Ks, but was pulled after 93 pitches. Piniella and his staff are keeping him on a short leash to start the season, but I sure would have liked to see him go another inning in this one. He was pulled after an inning-opening single, and handed a 4-3 lead to Aaron Heilman, who gave it up the same inning. Later, Neal Cotts was handed the game with a lefty up and a runner on third, and guess what happened? Single to right field. I loved Cotts as a very effective member of the 2005 World Champion Chicago White Sox, but the last few games he is not doing the one thing he is required to do: Get lefties out.

Anyway, it's a good thing its only April 16.

Tigers 9 Sox 0--Almost nothing worth mentioning from the Sox' blow-out loss on Wednesday. Jose Contreras started well, but got knocked around his second trip through the Tigers' batting order, almost the same thing that happened in his first start. Also, Contreras is just about one of the easiest pitchers around to steal on, and he proved it in this game by letting big, slow Miguel Cabrera steal second base off of him. Cabrera is an amazing player, but if he steals another base all year it will have to be because Contreras is on the mound.

Still, while Contreras was most definitely not dealing in this one, it was Mike MacDougal who really put the game out of reach, giving up 4 ER on 4 hits and 3 BBs in 2 IP. Ozzie seemed determined at the opening of the season to give Mac yet another chance, but we'll see how long that lasts. I'd mention the Sox hitting highlights, but there were none.

White Sox 3 Rays 2--Speaking of stealing bases, the Rays are absolutely relentless in that department. But, they could not do much with lefty John Danks pitching tonight. Danks was pretty tough with 6 IPs, 1 ER and 8 Ks, and left with a 2-1 lead. The runs came on a 2-run homer by Jermaine Dye.

The Rays found it much easier to steal on the Sox bullpen, getting a stolen base off Octavio Dotel and stealing 3 bases off Bobby Jenks as he tried to close out the 9th. Jenks gave up a run, but the Sox fortunately had purchased insurance in the top of the 9th on an RBI infield hit by Josh Fields.

The Sox actually left the bases loaded in the 9th, and didn't make the most of their chances tonight. That usually spells misfortune against the Rays, but this time they escaped.

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