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NL Central: Cubs answer the bell
At the start of the season, hopes were high in the North Side of Chicago. The Cubs had inked Alfonso Soriano to a long-term deal, Derrek Lee was healthy and primed to return to his All-Star form and a winning manager was at the helm.
By the end of April, however, postseason prospects seemed bleak. The team had its first losing April since 2002 and finished the month in last place in the weak NL Central. Soriano drove in only one run the entire month. Staff ace Carlos Zambrano was also struggling. Still, the preseason expectations did not seem unfounded. The Cubs knew they should be winning and were confident they would turn it around.
Now, midway through the season, they finally have. After finishing June with a 17-11 record and winning 10 of 11 games, the Cubs are 42-40 and in second place, 5.5 games back of the division-leading Brewers. One month after a players-only clubhouse meeting, the Cubs have started playing the kind of baseball they expected to play. For Soriano, memories of a horrendous April in which he struggled mightily at the plate and knocked in just one run must seem far away. After moving back to left field from center, he was selected to his sixth-straight All-Star team and named the NL Player of the Month after hitting .336 with an NL-leading 11 home runs in June.
The Cubs helped their cause by sweeping their cross-town rivals June 22-24 and by taking two of three from the Brewers last weekend, but the Brewers will not be easy to catch. And an NL Central wild-card berth is no sure thing this season. The Cubs are only 4.5 games back in the wild-card standings, but they’re behind three very good teams: the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Braves.
"There's a lot of belief that we were capable of being even better than we are now," said starter Ted Lilly, who is 7-4 this season and was one of the few bright spots for the Cubs in April and May. "We're playing some pretty good baseball right now, and I don't think there's any letup. I don't think there can be any letup if we're going to take over this division."
The Cubs have a chance to pad their record a little more before the All-Star break, as they will face Washington two more times and Pittsburgh three. And yet, despite that, their confidence and All-Star seasons from Soriano and Lee (and potentially Zambrano, who is one of five players eligible for the Final Vote spot on the NL roster), the path to the postseason contains some challenges and roadblocks.
Jacque Jones' offensive woes continue, and it is increasingly apparent the Cubs want to end his tenure with the team. But trading Jones, who is hitting .227 and has a shockingly low on-base percentage of .288 this season, has proven difficult. Trades with Minnesota and Florida were both nixed, reportedly due to the large amount of cash the Cubs included in the deal and Bud Selig's ensuing hesitancy to allow the Cubs' next owner to incur any more debt. The Cubs are currently using a shortened 11-man pitching staff because the inability to trade Jones has hurt their roster flexibility. Jones is not the only outfielder slumping at the plate. Fans were excited when top-prospect Felix Pie made his debut on April 17, but he has struggled as much as Jones, hitting .219 in 45 games. Lou Piniella met with Jones and Pie before the team's July 3 game in the hopes of getting the two outfielders back on track offensively.
Despite his early inconsistencies, Zambrano has been the team's most reliable starter. Lilly pitched well early, but he has only three wins in his past eight starts. Jason Marquis also started hot, but has not won since his complete-game victory against the Pirates on May 9. Rich Hill has one win in his past 10 starts. Closer Ryan Dempster is on the disabled list retroactive to June 23, but should be fine after the All-Star break if not sooner.
Still, the team's ERA is nearly a run lower than it was last season (3.94 compared to 4.74). And lately, when there has been slack to pick up, Lee, Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Zambrano have done so. But as Lilly said, the Cubs can't afford to let up, because it isn't likely the teams ahead of them will.
Labels: NL Central
posted by SI.com | View comments |
Trade Izturis. Trade Jones. Trade Ohman. Get what prospects you can for them. Add another long reliever from the AAA Cubs to the big league team and watch as Theriot and Fontenot keep getting on base for the boppers. Go Cubs. Best part of the season- Sweeping the Sox. Worst part- Seeing Barrett go before AJ
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