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So much to talk about, so little time...

--The White Sox have a 10-game winning streak, reportedly their longest since 1976 (?!), and everything is clicking. Even Gordon Beckham homered yesterday in the Sox-Cubs crosstown clash at The Cell. Excellent pitching and just enough hitting allowed the Sox to sweep the first-place Atlanta Braves earlier this week, which should convince many that the streak is for real, and not just a hot run against cold teams (though playing the Cubs twice in two weeks really helps).

--Carlos Quentin is still punishing pitchers, homering yesterday off Carlos Zambrano, but it's even better to see him driving singles up the middle and to the opposite field. It's 2008 all over again.

--Jake Peavy had his third straight strong outing, though again, two of those have been against the Cubs and the third against another the National League foe, so it remains to be seen if he can deliver against the American League.

--The Zambrano tirade is all over the place, so I won't get into the details, but his most recent meltdown into Zammy the Clown has many people demanding and believing that Zambrano's days are over as a Cub. How that will happen remains to be seen. The Cubs once again have held onto damaged goods for far too long, and (as with Milton Bradley) are forced to try to move a player who is suspended. Who will want him? (Even the Mets have to be shaking their heads...)

I'm not saying Zambrano didn't deserve to be suspended. It was the only remaining option. It's unfortunate because it leaves the already sad-sack Cubs a man down. And, it only reminds us that GM Jim Hendry should have tried to move Zambrano long ago, when teams like the Mets were still interested and their praise could have convinced Zambrano to wave his no-trade option.

I don't think Zambrano's days as a Cub are over. I think he will apologize and will be allowed to come back to the team--but only long enough for Hendry to move the once-promising (always promising, it seems) pitcher to another team, probably for a couple of iffy minor leaguers.

There are further implications to consider after this episode: Lou Piniella, I fear, has lost his team. They are not just bad, and behaving badly--they are unresponsive. With the exception of Marlon Byrd, who is a true gamer, they are a lackluster group. Zambrano's tirade yesterday apparently was aimed partly at Derrek Lee for not diving at a ball hit down the line by Juan Pierre, and while Lee's resume is impeccable and Zambrano's criticism questionable, Lee has not been the same strong fielder lately that he was earlier in the season and throughout his career. You could say the same of the entire error-prone group, of course.

The Cubs, like it or not, may be headed for a rebuilding. That project should start with Piniella's dismissal.

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?

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.

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.

Crazy Zammy is back

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Carlos "Big Z" Zambrano's crazy alter ego Zammy made an appearance Wednesday after a run-scoring wild pitch in which Zambrano thought he had tagged the runner out (Upon repeated viewings, it looked like it could have gone either way). Zammy screamed at the home plate ump, bumped him, tossed the ump from the game (figuratively speaking), threw the ball (still in his hand) out toward the ivy, threw his glove against the dugout fence (the same fence Ted Lilly leaped over this week to argue with an ump), and took a bat the th esame Gatorade machine that Ryan Dempster punched out this week.

It's entertaining stuff and would be more so if the performance wasn't going to cost Zambrano and the Cubs at least one outing at a time when they are a starter low.

I've said it before: Zambrano is a big baby, and it's all too clear that this very talented pitcher has pissed away numerous games throughout his career because he's in love with his own emotional act. I honestly think Zammy could tone it down at this point, but doesn't want to. There was something vaguely practiced and expected about this most recent tantrum, and it's unnecessary.

The Cubs went on (after the wild pitch left the score 2-2) to win 5-2, but no thanks to Zambrano. Reed Johnson was the hero with a great catch against the ivy in center field, and a homerun to gove the Cubs a 3-2 lead. Minor league Triple Crown stud Jake Fox also got called up and had a pinch-hit, run-scoring double, though regardless of how big a star Fox becomes, no one will remember this game for either his or Johnson's effort.

Opening Day: Hits and misses

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Well, because the White Sox postponed (perhaps prematurely) their opener by one day, I am left on the bench, unable to make the trip down to the Southside because of a prior work commitment. It's the first time I will fail to report for a Sox opener since, I think, 1999.

Too bad for many reasons, but also because today is about as nice as early April weather gets in Chicago. Brightly sunny, high 40s. I'll be watching out of the corner of my eye later on, but it won't be the same.

The Cubs started off on time and according to plan last night in Houston, winning 4-2 behind a surprisingly effective Opening Night performance by Carlos Zambrano. We got Big Z, the effective dominator, rather than Zammy, his rodeo clown evil twin. By mid-game, Zambrano had struck out 5 of 7 batters and looked about as good as he did during his no-hitter against the Astros last September in Milwaukee.

Still, Piniella pulled him after he put the first two men on in the 7th inning. The bullpen was good: Aaron Heilman limited the damage to a run, and Neal Cotts finished off the 7th; Carlos Marmol pitched through a walk in the 8th; and Kevin Gregg started his tour as a Cubs closer with two hits and a sacrific fly, but settled down and locked down the win.

Offensively, there was both power and efficency, as Alfonso Soriano led off the game (and the Cubs season) with a home run, and Aramis Ramirez later led off the 2nd inning with a solo shot. Why do pitchers--and especially a pitcher as effective and experienced as Roy Oswalt--throw so many fastballs to Soriano? Maybe it's the old adage that you need to establish the fastball and your location before doing anything else, but it's the top reason why Al-So has so many game-starting HRs. It doesn't make much sense to have him lead-off--never has and never will--but every time he starts a game with a homer, he makes it harder to argue the case against moving him.

Mike Fontenot also had three hits and scored a run on a sacrifice fly from Ryan Theriot--that was the efficiency part. Zambrano's win was his first career Opening Day win--we are looking for signs already...

Bronx bombed; Snow show?

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The Cubs are winless at the new Yankee Stadium. Of course, their record there is only 0-2, and the games don't actually count yet, but today's 10-1 loss came as close as you could get to actually counting, since it was the final pre-season tune-up for Monday night's opener in Houston.

Rich Harden looked pretty awful, pitching only 3.2 innings, giving up 7 earned runs, 3 HRs and 4 BBs while striking out 2. He'll have another 10 days or so to fix whatever went wrong before his next start, though when Harden doesn't pitch well, it's hard not to think the worst.

The Cubs looked pretty sluggish in both games at the new stadium, scoring early Friday night and then fading to a 7-4 loss in which it was Ted Lilly's turn to give away runs. In today's game, former Yankee Alfonso Soriano looked pretty swell, hitting a HR and going 3-4. He has generally looked better as spring has sprung, which can't be said for several of his mates. In both of these games, the Cubs seemed to be soaking in (and literally soaking) the new Yankee digs more than anything.

We're looking forward to Monday night anyway, and the hope that Carlos Zambrano remembers whatever he was doing so right when he no-hit Houston last September.

Meanwhile, we're also looking forward to Monday afternoon, when SBW will be heading down to the Cell for the White Sox opener. But, will there be baseball? Snow has been forecast for that morning, with driving winds and temps in the low 30s around mid-day. Ouch.

I love our teams, but they need to open on the road every year and stay away from home until mid-to-late April--it just means more home games later, right? My pal The Commish and I have been to many a Southside inaugural, and have had our share of good and bad weather. One year, we had a 70-degree day for the opener sandwiched between two much colder days. Then in 2006, we barely got to see the World Series Championship banners get hung before the game was delayed by drenching rains.

Maybe Mother Nature will cut us a little slack, but it doesn't look good. If they do start Monday, at least it might be quick: No. 56 will be on the mound setting his typically brisk pace.

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)
P

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.

We are having technical difficulties

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I tried to post after yesterday's amazing comeback, extra-inning victory by the Cubs, and last evening's complete breakdown by the Sox, but kept getting errors when I tried to save. Just as well, because I might have been over-reacting to both events at the time.

The Cubs 7-6 win happened after the Cubs had been four runs down in the mottom of the 9th with two out. I was literally in the act of changing the channel as A-Ram took his first swing and saw the ball trip through Ryan Braun's legs before it the channel actually flipped over. I turned back to the game, of course, and had almost no chance to think about the possibilities before Geo tied the game 6-6 on a three-run no-doubter HR. At that point, I refused to entertain the idea the Cubs would lose this one, even after Woody had put two men on in scoring position with no out in the 11th. D-Lee came through in the 12th, and like that the magic number when from stuck at 4 on down to 2.

Piniella joked with reporters afterward about tying one on after the game, and from the looks of today's peformance, which I unfortunately witnessed live, everyone tied one on last night. Zambrano, in his first appareance since his no-hitter, was awful, the worst he could possibly be, and I'm not just talking about his pitching. He was charged with eight runs in less than two inning, and looked the polar opposite of the guy who no-hit Houston less than a week ago. But, the worst part was that as Piniella came to remove him, he stormed off the mound before his glacially slow manager made it all the way out to the mound. Piniella looked absolutely livid and pointed Z back to the mound. It looked like Z Big Cry Baby had a few more words for Piniella before departing and ripping at the buttons on his jersey.

Reportedly, Zambrano's grandmother just passed away, and no one can blame him for feeling bad about that, but at this time of all times, the Cubs needed him to handle that pain, and his apparent disappointment in himself, like a grown man. The Cubs will clinch the division, hopefully this weekend, but this is the last kind of distraction anyone needs. How could this guy go from unhittable and gracious on Sunday night to awful and immature on Friday afternoon? Grow up now, Z, because the postseason is not for big babies.

The Cubs went on to lose 12-6. Most of the starters played like they were hung over (though I'm sure they are all too professional to let that happen), but the scrubs (Casey McGeehee?) tried to make a game of it. Tune in tomorrow to find out if the Cubs are ready to win this thing.

The White Sox rolled over and played dead last night, and just when you thought the Piranhas would help out again as they started a series vs. the Amazin' Rays, they actually won and cut the Sox lead to 1-1/2 games.

Vazquez was not as bad last night as Zammy was today, but he was not good, and left in the 4th inning down 4-1. The bullpen let that lead build to 7-1, and the cause not helped by a key error by the Missile, who is great and everything, but really needs to concentrate a bit better sometimes. The bullpen overall was better than Vazquez, but is really starting raise concerns.

Meanwhile, Paulie took most of the season to start hitting, but now he's the only one. He had a run-scoring double and homer last night. The Sox have failed to fully take advantage of a recent tailspin by the Piranhas (I know, the metaphor doesn't work), and had better be ready to play some very important games next week in Minnesota.

No-no means YES! YES!

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We've all seen the footage from Milt Pappas' no-hitter for the Cubs in 1972--will Big Z's highlights now replace the shoestring catch, Milt's anger at his perfect game being ruined by a walk with just one out remaining, and the images of early '70s fly-away hair and tight uniforms. I have always adored Jack Brickhouse and prefer his call of practically anything to most Cubs announcers since, but have come to really enjoy Len Kasper's enthusiasm and and even-handed exchanges with Bob Brenly.

Kasper's call of the final out of Zammy's no-hitter was just about perfect, though his "Oh, baby!" tagline was mocked by ESPN today and my get a little tiresome sooner rather than later. In any case, he reminded us that the Pappas no-hitter was 36 years (and 12 days) ago. It was the last during a four-year period that was especially fertile for Cubs no-nos--they had four no-hitters in the span of four season from 1968 to 1972, two of them by Ken Holtzman (Why do we never get to see that footage? Was it on TV, or no?) It was also the second of 1972, after Burt Hooton's on April 16. Those 1972 no-hitter were the best that a good, but not-good-enough Cubs team had to offer on the way to second place behind the Pirates.

The 5-0 no-hitter victory also was marked but timely two-out hitting by the Cubs, with 4 of their runs scoring in that manner. now, let's hope Big Z's big moment is just one more fine moment building toward the best possible moment.

The White Sox had their own amazing (good and bad) moments last night, predictably lost in the background of Zambrano's performance. They swept the Tigers 4-2 and 11-7 to stay 1-1/2 games up in first place after a loss by the Piranhas. The amazingly bad moment was when the Tigers tied the score in the 8th inning of the second game, 7-7, on a grand slam by Marcus Thames. It was the culmination of a 7-run implosion by the bullpen after Danks left in the 7th with the Sox up 7-0. The amazingly good moment was just an inning later, when DeWayne Wise (!) sent the Sox ahead 11-7 with his own grand slam. A surprising hero gave the Sox a great end to a horrible, rainy weekend in Chicago that didn't give the Sox very good conditions to work in, or a very large live crowd to support them

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