"When we left Arizona, I truly believed we would go from last to first," says Sosa, whose 16 homers and 50 RBIs ranked sixth in the league in each category as of Sunday. "Mack gave us confidence we hadn't had. But the most important thing about spring training was watching our pitchers take off. When you can pitch, you can win. This year, we can pitch with anybody."
While Zuleta's ritual was intended to cure offensive impotence, it has been Chicago's arms—not its bats—that seem possessed by mystical powers. Even with Sosa's production the Cubs have struggled at the plate, hitting .253 (12th in the league) with 61 homers (ninth). Meanwhile, Chicago's pitchers ranked second in the league with a 3.79 ERA and topped all of baseball with 503 strikeouts (chart, above). During the winning streak the Cubs held opposing hitters to a .190 average. Last season Baylor used 14 pitchers as starters; this year, save for one emergency appearance by reliever Manny Aybar, righthanders Kevin Tapani (8-1, 3.47 ERA), Jon Lieber (5-3, 2.95), Kerry Wood (4-4, 4.07), Tavarez (3-4, 3.46) and Bere (4-2, 5.13) had started 53 of the team's 54 games.
Looming largest among them is the 23-year-old, 6'5", 230-pound Wood, whose masterly 6?-inning, five-hit, 10-strikeout performance in the Cubs' 4-3 triumph over the Brewers last Friday night was more proof that he's approaching his rookie-phenom form of '98, when he went 13-6 with 233 strikeouts in 166 innings and stole the breath of a city. As has been well chronicled, Wood missed the following season with a torn ligament in his right elbow and then struggled through an up-and-down, 8-7,4.80 ERA run in 2000. Wood seemed to announce his return to prime time on May 25, when—a day after Lieber had one-hit the Cincinnati Reds—he allowed one hit and struck out 14 in a 1-0 win against Milwaukee for the Cubs' sixth win in the streak. "When you see the way Kerry carries himself, you can't be surprised that he's so good again," says Lieber. "He's always had the attitude that winning is the only way. I would never bet against him."
Lieber also would be wise not to wager against baseball's most unaccountably effective bullpen. When Gordon missed the season's first month with a strained right triceps, Fassero converted 10 of 12 save opportunities. Since his return, Gordon—whose fastball is again reaching the mid-90s—had converted seven of nine. "I'm 95 percent back to where I was at my best," says Gordon, one of five Chicago relievers to average more than one strikeout per inning. "It's just a matter of fine-tuning."
Fassero and Gordon are not only effective stoppers but also mentors to Chicago's young relievers. The newcomers who have benefited most are righthanders Courtney Duncan, 26, and Kyle Farnworth, 25, a pair of soft-spoken middle men with closer potential. Last year Chicago shuttled Farnsworth from the Triple A Iowa Cubs to the Cubs' rotation to the Cubs' bullpen, and his numbers (2-9, 6.43 ERA) reflected the wear and tear. A devout Mormon, Farnsworth has connected with the equally quiet Fassero, and the two discuss mound strategy. Farnsworth allowed one run in the inning he pitched in last Friday's win but used his 100-mph fastball to strike out three of the four batters he faced. "With Kyle and Flash, it reminds you of Ron Davis and Goose Gossage with the old Yankees," says Baylor. "Very, very tough."
Duncan, who made the jump from the Double A West Tenn Diamond Jaxx to the majors after a stellar spring, experienced a life's worth of trauma last November. His oldest brother, Thomas, shot and killed his pregnant girlfriend and then turned the gun on himself, committing suicide. "I've been asked if the tragedy affects my pitching," says Duncan, 3-1 with a 2.13 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 25 innings. "It does in one way: It allows me not to take the worst baseball situation too seriously. I know there are much worse things in life than the bases loaded with no outs." In Saturday's 10-4 defeat of the Brewers, Duncan faced that precise situation upon entering the game in the eighth and immediately giving up a single and two walks. He struck out the next three batters. "Courtney is one tough fella," says bullpen coach Sandy Alomar. "Maturity like that doesn't usually come with that age. It's unbelievable."
Nothing is unbelievable in Wrigleyville these days, what with the motivation-charged, pitching-rich Cubs in first place. It's magical, isn't it?