"It's early," Cub Manager Herman Franks has intoned almost every morning in May. "Let's wait a couple of months before we talk about pennant races." But as the Cubs, who have not finished in the first division in five years, won 16 of their first 20 games this month and ended last week just 1� games behind Pittsburgh, all Chicago ignored Franks' admonition and started talking of a miracle on the North Side. The surge—led by Rightfielder Bobby Murcer, Reliever Bruce Sutter and the Wrigley Doubleplay Twins—has brought what was a preseason cornucopia of questions about the Cubs down to one: Can their pitching survive the summer sun and thus allow them to remain contenders in the National League East?
The late Cub owner, Philip K. Wrigley, had been derided for what he had and had not done during the off-season. He had not signed free agents. He had hired Franks, 62, who had been out of baseball for six years. He had not met batting champion Bill Madlock's contract demands and had sent him to San Francisco for Murcer. He had also shipped Centerfielder Rick Monday, the Cub home-run leader in 1976, to Los Angeles for First Baseman Bill Buckner. The throw-ins in those deals were a couple of guys named Ivan DeJesus and Steve Ontiveros.
One columnist even called the Madlock-Murcer trade "the worst in Chicago history." Well, if the first six weeks of the season are any indication, the Cubs could use a lot more bad deals. Murcer has been the mainstay of a lineup that has averaged .312 and seven runs a game since May 1. He leads the Cubs in home runs (6) and RBIs (25), while hitting a thoroughly respectable .295. "What did anyone expect?" asks Franks. " Murcer's record shows that he's this kind of player." In his eight previous seasons as a regular, Murcer has averaged 153 games, .283, 22 homers, 26 doubles, 85 runs, 89 RBIs and 11 stolen bases. Third Baseman Ontiveros, the other man in the Murcer deal, has also been an asset, displaying unexpected adequacy on defense and batting better than .300.
And nowadays no one in Chicago is mourning the absence of Monday, even though the main man in that trade, Buckner, has rarely played because of an ankle injury. For starters, Buckner's replacement, Larry Biittner, has hit .318. Then there is the throw-in of the Monday-Buckner trade, DeJesus, who has fielded brilliantly and hit better than .300, too. With Manny Trillo—perhaps the best defensive second baseman in the league, who has been whacking at a .387 clip—DeJesus has given the Cubs their first doubleplay combination since Don Kessinger and Glenn Beckert.
As much as Trillo's and DeJesus' defense has helped the pitchers, Sutter has really been the salvation of the starters, who have completed only four of their first 36 games. He is a fuzzy-haired kid who came up last May to win six games, save 10 others and compile a 2.71 earned run average. Now Expo Manager Dick Williams calls him "the best reliever in the National League." After working in two victories in Atlanta last weekend, Sutter had 10 saves and an ERA of 0.56. He had made 10 appearances in May, working 20? innings and allowing one earned run. But whether he and the rest of the staff—which has only three starters of even modest reputation, none of whom are lefthanded—can continue to perform this well when the games and heat start mounting in June is a vexing question. Even Franks admits that the Cubs' prospects are not good unless they can obtain or develop a reliable fourth starter.