Thursday, July 28, 2005

the dog days

the cubs continue to play out a huge string of games -- august 1 is the only off day for this team between the all-star break and august 18, a run of 34 games in 35 days, truly the dog days -- with what i must admit is surprising success. now 9-5 since the break, they came tantalizingly close to getting the sweep i felt they needed to have to stay relevant, falling only in the 11th of the middle game. despite that setback, they've continued to claw up the standings, now three back and having overtaken philadelphia.

has anything changed about this team since the break? only one thing i can put a finger on -- the demotion of korey the klown and sideshow dubois. dumping two players whose contributions were mostly to wear a path into the grass from the batter's box back to the mid-dugout gate for a well-earned everyday role for jerry hairston and a cup of coffee -- or is it more? -- for matt murton was plainly a step in the right direction. hairston has continued producing along the lines he has all year, hitting .280 in 89 plate appearances, scoring 10 runs in 20 games since taking over the job in center july 3, assuaging concerns about his defense as well. and murton has shocked, going 481/545/556 in his debut 13 games, feasting on lefty pitching and playing a very servicable left field, contributing an 8th-inning game-tying pinch-hit rbi just yesterday.

did the changes help lift the cubs to 5th in the NL in scoring in july and an amazing 2nd in on-base percentage? well, they sure as hell didn't hurt. i wish i could say that was a product on a changed approach and increased patience, but the team has remained 15th in pitches per plate appearance in july (ahead only of san fran). instead, it's merely a product of hot hitting -- a team .283 in july, good for third-best, with neifi at short being the only regular hitting under .270 for the month -- and therefore probably ephemeral. lee may keep slugging, but some of this crowd can't sustain this pace.

team pitching in july has picked up a bit as well -- a respectable 3.30 era, 4th in the league. two blown saves in three chances and the loss (again) of kerry wood hasn't been enough to derail it all somehow.

now, of course, fourteen games is hardly enough to make grand predictions about the next 61, especially when there's the previous 87 of pathetic, sometimes frightening mediocrity to consider. this team has problems -- and with the non-waiver deadline only four days off, the bullpen, left field, shortstop, the bench and the back of the rotation all remain issues in play to one degree or another.

however, this post-break run has all but removed any doubt that the cubs will have to be buyers at the deadline if anything, regardless of how hard it is to come back, regardless of however remote their chances may seem or have seemed. team management will not risk a white-flag trade and the public relations damage it would do -- with the worst of the schedule behind them, the bandwagon is filling up -- and, after all, crazier things have happened. however any of us might have looked forward to a youth movement on this club and a meaningful reconstruction around its core assets (prior, zambrano, lee, ramirez, barrett), it isn't going to come right now. now all there is to do is hang on, fill in the holes and hope for the best -- seven shots at the astros in the closing ten games for the final playoff spot to avenge the 2004 collapse.

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