It looks as if we'll enjoy a pennant race after all this season, but on the unexpected side of town.
The Cubs climbed to the brink of contention in the NL Central as a sweep of the White Sox led into a seven-game winning streak, though the first six victories of that streak brought them only one game closer to the first-place Milwaukee Brewers. I long ago identified the Brewers as my team of destiny this season, picking them to win the division. (You can look it up on the Reader's sports blog--March 31 in the archives--where I also picked the San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox, each in first at this week's All-Star break.) The Brewers came to Wrigley Field a couple weeks ago and the series' opening game turned out to be the dramatic seventh win in the Cubs' streak.
As the game began the youthful Brew crew looked indomitable. Did those kids ever attack the ball during batting practice! Towering Corey Hart, six-foot-six, shot line drives in all directions, and rookie Ryan Braun seemed to be reveling in the batting cage after a painful infield practice. (He plays third base as if he were fielding with a spatula, which is why he started the season in the minors.) Hefty first baseman Prince Fielder, who's having an MVP season, supplied his own sound effects, shouting "Wham!" each time he made contact and sending a series of rockets into the right-field bleachers and beyond. Ominously, he was the only left-handed batter in a lineup that figured to bludgeon left-handed pitchers, and the Cubs had lefties lined up to start the first two games.
The Brewers pounded Rich Hill for five runs in the first inning of the opener. So much, it seemed, for the Cubs getting into the race, especially with 21-year-old phenom Yovani Gallardo starting for the Brewers and looking impressive. Yet the righties in the Cubs' bullpen tamed the Brewers, and the Cubs chipped away at Gallardo for a couple of runs here and another there, and in the ninth Aramis Ramirez won the game with a homer off Milwaukee bullpen ace Francisco Cordero.
The Cubs' win streak had awakened their fans, and this game, which got the Cubs back to .500 at 39-39, confirmed that the race was on with their rivals to the north. For years north suburban Cubs fans have acted as interlopers in Milwaukee because tickets were so much easier to get there than at Wrigley Field. But interest in the Brewers has revived: they're drawing well at Miller Park and their fans turned the tables and made the trip to Wrigley. Cubs officials announced the three-game series with the Brewers was the toughest ticket of the season--even tougher than the city series with the Sox--drawing a record 124,810 over the weekend.
Milwaukee ace Ben Sheets held the Brewers together by winning the middle game, but the Cubs won the finale to pull to six and a half games out of first. By last week the Cubs were four and a half games behind the Brewers and that's where they entered this week's All-Star break--striking distance.
As manager Lou Piniella tweaked and refined his team in the first half--replacing unsound players like Michael Barrett and Jacque Jones with young, scrappy types like Angel Pagan, Felix Pie, and Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot, who played like a couple of Cajun brothers--fans came to embrace the Cubs. This was a good team, worth watching, and with the resurgent Carlos Zambrano leading the way, the pitching showed signs of being good enough to win the division. Then Piniella abruptly shifted gears, as good managers do, by readjusting expectations. As the Cubs closed in on first Piniella insisted they really hadn't done anything. "I think our club will continue to play good baseball," he said, "and we'll see where we are on August first. That's when you start looking at this thing in earnest." In one stroke, he took the pressure off his team and challenged it to perform better. I still like the Brewers to win the Central--they have too much young talent whose time has come--but the Cubs' mixture of youth and experience puts them in a position to pressure Milwaukee's kids and see if they'll crack in the stretch. It could be a magnificent race.
At this point I have to admit my April pick to win it all was the White Sox. But this team's a shadow of the one that won the World Series a season and a half ago. Yes, injuries deprived them of top-of-the-order on-base men Scott Podsednik and Darin Erstad, but neither was all that great or reliable to begin with. Jim Thome was lost for a considerable portion of the first half and Joe Crede for the season, but a team really proficient at manager Ozzie Guillen's "Ozzie ball," manufacturing runs without homers, would have been able to weather those losses, especially with Josh Fields stepping in for Crede. The starting pitching has been generally strong, but what really cost the team was the implosion of the bullpen. The Sox lost 22 of 27 games from May 27 through the Cubs' sweep at Sox Park June 24, with half of those losses coming in games the bullpen entered tied or with a lead.
The Sox' overall roster, constructed in part by Guillen but mostly by general manager Ken Williams, has been a mess, the anemic lineup featuring nonentities like Luis Terrero and Andy Gonzalez. Once the Sox fell ten games behind the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers, with both Podsednik and Erstad out, there was no reason the roster shouldn't have included Brian Anderson, Ryan Sweeney, and Jerry Owens. If Guillen and Williams originally thought Terrero and Gonzalez were better players or offered more hope for the future they were wrong, and the Sox went about proving that.
Fans who figured the season had bottomed out with the Cubs sweep saw it get even worse: a brutal 9-6 defeat by the Baltimore Orioles on July 4 and two days later a doubleheader loss to the Minnesota Twins by scores of 20-14 and 12-0. Instead of "Let's go White Sox," fans chanted "Re-sign Buehrle." It took plenty of such cajoling before Williams gave in and offered Mark Buehrle the kind of protection against being traded that Buehrle was insisting on. (Buehrle accepted a bargain salary in order to stay put, but a trade will trigger a big increase.)
Williams put the 2005 Sox together, true, but the way he's talked, he's not only willing but eager to tear that team apart, much in the manner of a Jerry Krause. Let's review what we've learned from the Bulls: organizations set the conditions for success but it's players who actually win championships--players chosen by managers and GMs able to recognize who the best players are.
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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Felix Pie photo/Jonathan Daniel (Getty Images).