Smile Politely

Time For a Well Deserved Break: Cubs Lead NL Central by 4.5 Games

The Break

This morning I decided to see what the Sun-Times had to say about the Cubs first half. After I finished reading a story about the new cover of the New Yorker portraying Obama as a militant Muslim with a burning American flag, I dug into a few hardball columns.

Most everyone is focused on the obvious, as we should be:

“(after Sunday’s loss) A bigger lead would have exceeded the best-ever five-game advantage the 1969 Cubs enjoyed at the break—and comparisons to the ill-fated ‘69 favorites aren’t necessarily a good thing.”

“As it is, this Cubs team is standing tall with a 57–38 record, tied with the Los Angeles Angels for the best in baseball (the first time a Cubs team has earned that distinction at the All-Star break). It also has the best home record (37–12) in the National League.”

“With Carlos Marmol announced as Wood’s roster replacement on the All-Star team, the Cubs tied the National League record of eight All-Stars, equaling the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates.”

Serious numbers creating serious expectations. Let’s not beat around the bush. The Cubs are thinking about October, and now. Yes, thinking about the post-season in July. And for the first time in a long time, it’s justified.

Now, they are saying all the right things, like “we can’t look past St. Louis and Milwaukee,” but they know the scoop. If the team stays healthy, and that’s always a big “if”, they will be playing in October. Even the GM has suggested they will set their rotation and the way they handle their starters working backwards from the end of the season. For example, they might shorten up Dempster’s pitch counts in the hot month of August, or they might pitch Harden every six days instead of five. Executing this plan may, at times, be difficult for Piniella who has a short leash on a pitcher not getting the job done, and conversely may not want to take out Harden, Dempster or Zambrano when they’re pitching well.

But it has to be done.

The Cubs may even lose a few more games because of it. But listen, none of that matters if we can show up in the NLDS with fresh and healthy arms. Are the Cubbies getting ahead of themselves? I say no. I say, it’s about time they start thinking like winners. Speaking of winners…

Harden’s debut

For those of you who saw Rich Harden’s debut, I’m sure we all concur, it was a thing of beauty. It’s quite clear the kid has special stuff. He barely threw his splitter and slider, almost exclusively going with well located fastballs anywhere from 92 to 98 when he needed a boost and one of the best right-handed change-ups I’ve seen in awhile. He pitched more than well enough to win and left to a rousing standing O in the sixth inning. 5 1/3 IP 10 K’s, 0ERs.

Unfortunately the Marmol meltdown and subsequent 11th inning comeback victory did not result in a W for Harden, but the lovers and haters saw what they needed to see from young #40.

Stay healthy and he’ll have the impact he was acquired to have.

Looking back…

Talking to a few of my die-hard friends this weekend, we all agreed that outside of staying healthy, getting Marmol back to the Marmol we all know and love, is a big second-half key. Next week, we’ll take a look at a more detailed second-half key list, but this week I thought it would be interesting to go back to a few comments, or thoughts I made before the season started and see how they played out…

**“Either way, I’m glad we’re not going to open the season with Eyre as our LH specialist. I like the guy, but he’s out of gas. “ (Posted March 25)**

Well, I was partially wrong here. Eyre’s clearly not as durable as he used to be as evidenced by his second trip to the DL last week, but he did record 32 straight scoreless innings, breaking a club record and has re-established himself as a late-inning option.

**“If Wood can roll off five or six saves to start the season, he’ll be in great shape. On the other hand, if he blows two of the first three, even his loyal fans will start getting nervous. We’ll see. What do you readers think? Did Piniella make the right move?” (Posted March 25)**

Well, as we know, Wood blew four of his first seven save chances, but then went on to rattle off 21 of 23. Piniella made the right move.

Now let’s look at some starting pitching capsules pre-season…

**“Ted Lilly. This southpaw did much better than I (and a lot of us) thought he would last year. Particularly impressive was his 9–1 record after a Cubs loss. He was the stopper for the Northsiders last year and he was more clutch than Big Z. I’m worried that he’s not going to be able to duplicate his 2007 campaign. I’m actually going to predict that he’s going to struggle a little. I hope I’m wrong as we need him to be a solid number two.”**

After a rough start Lilly sits on nine wins at the all-star game. Not bad at all. I was right, he did struggle some, but he’s pushed through it. Best thing here is, with the addition of Harden, Lilly becomes the Cubs #4. Lilly is not a #2, which is where we had him last year, but he’s probably the best #4 in baseball. He should have a strong second half if he winds up matching up against weaker pitching.

**“Rich Hill. Hill will slot into the four spot even though he’s actually our second best pitcher. He racked up almost 200 innings as a 26 year old and held batters to a paltry .235 avg. I think Hill takes a step forward this year. I guess he’s been working on speeding up his delivery so base runners don’t take second on him as often. That’d be nice, but completely changing a pitcher’s mechanics can be a really bad thing. Unless Hill suffers from horrendous run support again (he ranked second to last in the entire NL last year), I say he wins 15.”**

I was way off here. Although word is that Rich recently re-discovered his release point again, too bad he had to go all the way to Mesa to find it.

**“Ryan Dempster. I think Dempster is going to win the third slot. I’m not totally sure if he deserves it, but I actually think he’s our best option. He walks too many batters, but that won’t be as much of a problem now that he’s starting (although the amount of walks he gave up as a closer repeatedly sent me to the medicine cabinet). He has four decent pitches, which is a nice arsenal for a starter, especially if he’s willing to use his change-up more. It’s easily his best pitch and he didn’t use it enough in the ninth inning. Hopefully, he will now. He could win 10 and I’d be pleased. He should be around 5.00 in the ERA Dept. Lets hope his arm holds up, though, I am still not convinced he can make the jump to a full-time starter; he’s not 25 anymore. He did work hard in the off-season, and so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now. Plus, he’s the team clown and I like that.”**

Well he did win 10…in the first half…Dempster has been incredible and has used his change-up more to hold lefties (who hit him pretty well last year) to a measly .222 batting avg. I tip my cap.

Friends…enjoy the All-Star break, root for the NL. You never know, home field advantage in the World Series may actually mean something to the Northsiders this year.

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