Monday, July 12, 2004

Halfway There

My how things can change in a week.

At this time a mere seven days a ago, the Cubs were coming off a sweep of the White Sox. The Cubs were storming towards the All-Star break, the Sox sputtering. Cubs fans were giddy, Sox fans depressed. Cubs fans were drunk with joy, Sox fans more drunk (as they usually are, win or lose.)

It all seems like so long ago.

The White Sox - fresh of a sweep of the lowly Mariners and back in first place - are enjoying the good vibes every MLB team covets come All-Star time. They can go home, rest, and take stock of their evnvious position.

The Cubs, however, are dealing with a mid-season apocalypse, of sorts. Their big plans have gone haywire, massive pre-season dreams are quickly losing air. Cub fans are growing continually antsy, demanding immediate action from GM Jim Hendry and bemoaning an NL Central race that is surely already lost. (Their opinion, not mine.) Worst of all, the hated Cardinals are sitting pretty atop the NL Central standings. Oh, the cruelty! Oh, the injustice! This is the ultimate insult to the Cubs' long list of injuries.

Cub fans, however, need to relax.

Kerry Wood is back and looked highly impressive in shutting down the Cards on Sunday night, providing a victory that was needed in the worst way and halting a five-game losing streak. The win left the Cubs seven games back instead of nine. Consider Wood to have already contributed a two-game turnaround to the Cubs' supposedly fading fortunes.

Wood and Mark Prior, both of whom went from SI pre-season cover boys to MIA for most of the first-half of the season in true Cub style, should be well-rested for the coming dog days. This should warm the heart of any Cubs fan, as well as strike fear into all comers. Perhaps their layoffs were blessings in disguise.

Who would have though Wood and Prior would have a combined six wins at this point in the season?

Who would have thought Greg Maddux would be a mere mortal, mediocre at best. Well, actually, this possibilty was feared by many as Maddux is approaching 40. In his old age, Maddux is steadily morphing into his one-time journeyman brother, Mike, who finished his career at 39-37 with a 4.04 ERA. (Remember him?)

Maddux really needs to stop requesting Paul Bako as his preferred catcher, if this is actually the case, which it must be considering Bako cannot hit. Look, an in-his-prime Maddux could have requested Geena Davis to be his catcher and nobody would have questiond him. A 7-7 record and 4.51 ERA, however, means he gets Michael Barrett, who has been a revelation, as his battery mate, whether he likes it or not. Dusty Baker needs to be adamant about this:

Barrett = solid
Bako = another pitcher in the lineup.

Are Cubs fans warranted in their growing cries for moves by Hendry? Sure they are. In typical fashion, however, their requests are all over the place: a middle reliver, a closer, a shortstop, a reserve outfielder, a "hit" on Scott Rolen or Albert Pujols, or both.

Personally, I'd go for pitching. Then again, I'd almost always go for pitching. Color me old-school!

Look, talk of a new shortstop is ridiculous and least for now. Alex Gonzalez is due to return soon. He's a more-than-serviceable shortstop, his double play flub against the Marlins notwithstanding. (Time and place goes without saying.) So why chase the Expo's Orlando Cabrera, whose stats are nothing to get excited about, and whose contract is nearly identical to Gonzalez's? Why trade one middle-of-the-road, journeyman shortstop for another? Please don't tell me that Cabrera, at 29, would be the shortstop of the future. A fresh Gonzalez will suffice.

For the record, fans calling for a Matt Clement-for-Nomar Garciaparra swap need to step out of their favorite Wrigleyville watering holes and sober up. At this point, I would't deal Clement for Garciaparra if I was promised a night with Garciaparra's lovely wife, Mia Hamm. OK, OK, yeah, I probably would. I mean...

Yep, it's relief pitching where the Cubs need the most help. As it stands now, the present group will kill the Cubs. Believe me.

Look, the Cubs' offense will come around, particularly when Gonzalez and, most importantly, Aramis Ramirez, are available. Sammy Sosa is heating up and happy again, mugging for the cameras like he's regained the confidence that comes courtesy of a corked bat. Moises Alou is in a funk that, hopefully, will pass. The starting rotation, healthy and complete at long last, is suddenly as formidable as it was always meant to be. Despite their rough patch, the Cubs are, in a way, looking stronger than they have all season. I mean, almost every Cubbie is , you know, here.

So strengthen the bullpen!

The Sox, meanwhile, should not look too fondly upon their sweep of the Mariners, who were finishing up an 0-for-9 road trip. In fact, two one-run victories were, to be honest, alarming, particularly when Saturday's 3-2 win hinged on bases-loaded walks. Surely, the Sox are better than that. Right?

Whatever. A win is a win...even against the Mariners, who shouldn't count, but do.

The Sox are in first place, having bounced back nicely from a recent five-game losing streak that may have killed them during the Jerry Manuel years. The Sox can feel good about themselves, which is refreshing after terrible starts to the past few seasons left them wildly scrambling at the midway point.

On paper at least, the tough portion of the Sox schedule is over with the second-half consisting largely of AL Central rivals. This scares me. The Tigers and Indians scare me. Don't let their sub-.500 records fool you. Both teams are up-and-comers just learning how to win. Both teams are starting to feel good about themselves, particularly the Tigers, who just took 3-of-4 from the Twins in the Metrodome.

The AL Central isn't baseball's best division, but it may be the most unpredictable, the Royals aside, of course. I predict they will continue to royally stink. (Yeah, I'm up on a limb here.)

The bottom line at the All-Star break is this: Both the Sox and Cubs are firmly entrenched in playoff races. You can look at their respective divisions, the wildcard chases, or both. It's up to you. Whatever makes you feel better.

Hope is alive, and that's all that counts. Too many tortured years have passed with at least one or, more often than not, both Chicago clubs stuck in also-ran mode by the All-Star break. Yes, both teams have legitimate playoff aspirations, a rarity in Chicago.

We're halfway there...with a long way to go.


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