just a week after this site called for the cubs to meet a defining mid-season test, where do they sit? riding a five-game losing streak into wildcard oblivion. the cubs have dropped to 40-41, fifth in the wildcard standings and four losses back of leading atlanta.
this isn't too much to ask of a good team: get the cows in the barn, make it to the break at break even on the year, and work something up before the trade deadline to repair your weaknesses for a late summer push. alas, it seems more than these cubs may be capable of. while they're in better shape than i had expected for them earlier this year, i don't think anyone can look at this team and feel inspired with confidence.
patterson may finally have relinquished his role as the worst everyday outfielder in the majors with jerry hairston taking over in center and leading off in the last two outings -- where he has done nothing but perform, reaching in 6 of 11 plate appearances. just as good, neifi has finally been slotted seventh in an attempt to hide is horrible regression to the mean at the plate, elevating todd walker to second in the order. as a bonus, jason dubois has been relegated to the bench role he richly deserves with todd hollandsworth's june awakening, in which he hit .360 with just 8 k's in 75 at-bats.
these elementary steps -- the first two of which a competent manager should have taken long ago -- to improve offensive production will pay dividends for the cubs for as long as no one asks dusty to hit leadoff.
i'm not sure what's to be done about the cub pitching staff -- when you cough up more runs than the colorado rockies in any month, regardless of degree of difficulty, you're not doing well. wood showed us yesterday why his return is not a panacea. greg maddux -- of all people -- finally appears to be showing his age, while zambrano remains overused and (consequently, if you ask me) inconsistent. the bullpen continues to be shiftless and sabotaged periodically by the likes of wuertz, wellemeyer, remlinger and now rusch, who appears to be having trouble readjusting to bullpen life. in the end, this team is going to have some bullpen problems because of the way it was constructed. dempster has been amazing -- one wonders if he can last like this -- but even his overachievement cannot hide the broader and deeper weaknesses out there.
in all, i continue to see little reason to believe that the team will end any better than the neighborhood of .500 or a few better. the importance of the next week, in historical terms, cannot be overemphasized. if the cubs continue to wash down the drain over the next six against the braves and marlins, it will put the playoffs beyond reach. the cubs have to prove they belong in this race.