Saturday, May 12, 2007

eight games back and rising

the chicago cubs did some things right today. faced with a 5-1 deficit in the seventh hung largely on angel guzman as he permitted nine hits and a walk over 5.1 innings, with rain coming down and getting harder by the moment, the offense sparked to life behind a three-run pinch-hit homer from matt murton, with aramis ramirez further driving in alfonso soriano to tie the game at five just before the tarp was rolled out. jacque jones even managed to put the cubs ahead following the delay, and the club looked to have reversed a very grim situation.

but will ohman came on in the bottom half of the frame, and after retiring two allowed a single to aaron rowand and a double to chase utley to make it 7-6 cubs. bob howry came on to plug the gap, but a walk to pat burrell was followed by a greg dobbs triple on his way to a 4-for-4 performance standing in for ryan howard, and it didn't stop there. the cubs had plated six in the top half to take the lead; the phils took it all back in the bottom half and went on to win 11-7 in a heartbreaker.

the game was peppered with some of the frustrating quality of play that has dogged this team all year. third base coach mike quade managed to get two runners thrown out at the plate thanks to philly rightfielder shane victorino -- one of them being soriano as he visibly labored to run at two-thirds speed, apparently having aggravated his early-season hamstring injury while stealing second in the sixth. soriano was limited to jogging after balls in the left field gap thereafter. errors from murton and jones helped confirm the dismal fielding reputation of the cub outfield.

with the milwaukee brewers having hammered the new york mets earlier in the day, the 16-18 cubs fell to a season-worst eight games back of the division leader, who went to 25-11 behind ben sheets and five rbi from a streaking j.j. hardy. heretofore-unnoticed houston also won, climbing into a second-place tie with the northsiders at 17-19.

the phillies in the last two days have sadly landed a couple of blows that this page might have foreseen. it has been stated here that much of the cubs' scintillating run differential early this year seemed to be a consequence of some unsustainable trends -- the club's lopsided positive record in blowout wins, some extraordinary luck for the starting pitching, and an offense whose early quietude in power was being ameliorated by a high babip.

the babip of the offense remains largely intact, thanks to derrek lee's continuing scalding run (having gone 4-for-5 again today to raise his average to .393). but the run differential has taken a little beating, contracting to +25 and driving the season-to-date pythagorean estimate for the cubs record down from a .607 winning percentage to .571 in just two days. and it's come at the expense of the pitching -- rich hill saw his era jump from 1.73 to a still-extremely-good 2.51 in being touched up friday by burrell as the phils added a second blowout loss to counter the seven such wins; and guzman, eyre, ohman and howry all did their part today to nearly add another. ted lilly tries to dodge the sweep tomorrow.

but the hardest news to swallow must be this: going back to april 24 -- the day this page declared their playoff hopes dead at the hands of a dismal start -- the cubs have played probably about as well as they can, going 9-5.

they had previously fallen back of the brewers by five games in just 19 tries, hitting ebb tide at 7-13 on april 24 at six back.

in the ensuing 14, in spite of their play, they've fallen back two more.

it might at this point be instructive to remember may 12, 2006. the cincinnati reds -- a ballclub that most knew to be insufficient to take home a title even in baseball's weakest division -- had run out to a 23-13 start not dissimilar (though not nearly so impressive in terms of run differential) to this year's run by milwaukee. the saint louis cardinals and houston astros stayed along, managed to keep within a game or two as all three charged out of the gate. it was expected by nearly every observer that the reds, being an inferior club, would fall to the wayside -- and they did, going just 57-69 thereafter.

but even in so doing, the reds gave back just four games to houston and 3.5 to the eventual division and world series champion saint louis club.

that cardinal club may be a yet more relevant comparison. in getting to 23-13 a year ago, they had plated 176 times and allowed 135 -- a .618 pythagorean percentage. it did them little good thereafter, however, as they showed themselves to be the faulted team that many knew they were in scoring 605 and allowing 627 the rest of the way.

it would seem to this page that these lessons are relevant today for this cub club. milwaukee will in every likelihood come back to earth one of these days, and probably not long from now -- like the 2006 redbirds, their monster +45 run differential and .624 pythagorean estimated record will prove ephemeral; and like the 2006 reds, their 25-11 pace will not last.

but neither will the cubs imposing run differential and pythagorean estimate -- the foundations it is built upon are every bit as unsustainable as those in wisconsin and maybe a bit moreso: the brewers are just 6-5 in blowouts, and their babips both offensive (.297) and pitching (.296) are quite normal, particularly when compared to the cubs' (.312 and .265, respectively).

and the difference of course is that they, unlike the cubs, have used their run of outperformance. should milwaukee play just break-even baseball from here to the end, they will now finish 88-74 -- a tally that the 16-18 cubs would now have to go 72-56 (.562) to match. indeed, such has been their start that even if they should match the collapse of the 2006 reds -- a team they are, beyond a doubt, better than -- they would end 82-80, a record that the cubs to date have shown precious little inclination toward reaching, regardless of their imagined capacity.

in the hard light of close examination, dear reader, it seems far more likely that, rather than closing the gap, the cubs will continue to bleed games to milwaukee in fits and starts for the remainder of the season as they have to date. not only have the brewers posted a much larger run differential and greater theoretical record thusfar, not only have they done so on far less anomalous measures of luck, but they've actually won games doing it on a strength of schedule that is essentially no different from the cubs'. it is well past time for milwaukee's doubters to reconsider -- this writer picked hesitantly picked them to win the 2007 nl central, but had little inkling that so much of the young club's massive potential would be so quickly realized. it would seem that the worst of the growing pains mentioned here are now past them. and -- amazingly -- they figure to add the (arguable) best ready hitter in the minor leagues as well as the (arguable) best ready pitcher in the minor leagues within the next month.

this page would like to be able to recommend that wise observers shift to a wild card race in which the team finds itself 5.5 back of the 22-13 mets -- but it is also there looking up at six teams, with a correspondingly high probability that at least one of them will outperform the cubs the rest of the way.

indeed, in every respect the chicago cubs seem more dead today than they were on april 24. hope remains for a longshot or two to come in and rescue this team, but serious discussions of club planning for 2008 and beyond should now begin to come to the fore.

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