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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Darn That Dream

I don't consider myself a gullible person, but year after year I fall for the same stunt. Ever August I swear to myself that I will not dare to dream of a Cubs contender. I watch as my favorite team fields everyday players like Ronny Cedeno, Neifi Perez, and Steve Buechele, and I swear never, ever to be fooled again. I say, "There is nothing that could happen this offseason that could make me a believer again."

But then I hear about a hot-shot five-tool centerfielder they're going to be bringing up from AAA. I hear that Mark Prior and Kerry Wood are striking out spring hitters by the dozens. I hear that they've signed a bonafide superstar, resigned a bonafide superstar, and drafted a bonafide futurestar. Somehow I can't help myself. I love Dusty Baker! I love Don Baylor! I love Don Zimmer! I am a Lefebvre Belebvre! And I forget that the Cubs haven't had the same centerfielder for three years running since Brian McRae ('94-'96). I forget that they haven't had three consecutive winning seasons since the early '70s. They haven't won 95 games since 1984. How easily I forget!?!

This year was more of the same and by the beginning of June I was cursing myself again for being such a dupe. There was in-fighting, ridiculous baserunning mistakes, and embarrassing fielding miscues. And then something happened. Lou Pinella put a charge into his dirt-stomped cap that would've made Beckham proud, got ejected and suspended, and somehow ignited a 36-20 run which has the Cubs neck and neck with the Brewers headed into the season's final third. They've got the best run differential in the National League. They're hitting with men on base. They're hitting close and late. They're holding leads. They're catching the ball. They're stealing bases and breaking up double plays. Some days it's hard to believe these are the Cubs, even now that Kerry Wood has rejoined the team. Everybody has gotten hot at once. Derrek Lee has as many homers in 17 games since the All-Star break as he did in 84 games leading up to it. Jacque Jones has raised his average 25 pts. since the beginning of July. Carlos Zambrano is 9-2 since he beat the crap out of Michael Barrett, with 82 K's in 81 IP. Ted Lilly is 8-1 over that same span. And, the phenomenal young arm, Carlos Marmol, has a 1.71 ERA with more than twice as many strikeouts (58) as hits allowed (26).

Simultaneously, the Brewers have suffered some significant setbacks. Their ace went on the DL, along with their centerfielder. Their starting second baseman was demoted to AAA. Their closer, unhittable during the first half, has an ERA above 4.00 since the All-Star break. Their primary set-up man has an ERA over 6.00 during that same span. Even MVP candidate Prince Fielder suffered a two-week slump. In July and early August, the Brewers are 13-19.

The Cubs and Brewers play almost identical schedules during the season's final two months. Chicago plays 38 of their final 52 games against teams with losing records. Milwaukee has 33 such pairings. This would appear to benefit the Cubs, the team at full strength and playing well, but their is a saying in Wrigleyville, "Fear the mediocre." Especially the mediocre represented by NL Central rivals. The Cubs have 35 games remaining against NL Central teams. And they have lost more than they have won against the divisions supposed doormats, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

Neither team went crazy at the trade deadline. Milwaukee securing Scott Linebrink to solidify the bullpen and the Cubs grabbing the infinitely acquirable Jason Kendall as Michael Barrett's replacement. A move which inspired this gem,

"They got a proven big-league hitter. Kendall didn't come cheap. But you know what, neither does winning." - Rick Sutcliffe

Only a member of the '84 goats would be able to employ such cubby-bear optimism. After all, Kendall is dead last among everyday MLB catchers in HR, RBI, AVG., OBP., and SLG., keeping in mind that his competition includes such offensive forces as Brian Schneider and Miguel Olivo. But Kendall does handle pitchers well, as evidenced by his league-leading Catcher's ERA of 3.46, he sees a lot of pitches, doesn't strike out much, and is a career .300 hitter against the NL Central.

The question Cubs fans continue to ask themselves, cannot help but ask themselves, is when is the other shoe going to drop. HBO has begun running its sadistic documentary, "Wait 'Til Next Year," regularly, just so that anybody who isn't aware of the Cubs inevitable failures can have an opportunity to experience the tragedies of '69, '84, and '03. It's a good way to get hyper-macho Chicagoans to unapologetically bawl. Those of us who have lived through a few especially spectacular failures cannot help but look over our shoulders for goats, black cats, Lou Brock, cork, or Steve Bartman. We know it's coming. Sometime before the middle of October.

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