Wait till this year: 10 reasons Cubs could go all the way
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Chicago Cubs reliever Carlos Marmol plopped down on the billowy leather recliner in the visitors' clubhouse, leaned back in one of those "ahhhhh" moments and then fell head over heels backward.
Reliever Scott Eyre, talking on his cell, let Marmol struggle for a few seconds, leaned the phone to the side and said, "Hold on a second. Marmol just fell over." And then he helped drag Marmol from the recliner.
On the opposite side of the clubhouse a handful of Cubs, as well as general manager Jim Hendry and team chairman Crane Kenney, watched as LSU mounted a ninth-inning rally against Rice in the College World Series. Hendry is a close friend of LSU coach Paul Mainieri.
Just before the game-winning, bases-clearing double that won the game for LSU, closer Kerry Wood sprinted back toward the players lounge. That's where shortstop Ryan Theriot, an LSU alum, was watching -- and dying -- with every pitch.
After the LSU rally, Wood walked back into the clubhouse with a smile as wide as the on-deck circle.
"When the guy hit the ball, I turned the TV off," he said, laughing.
This is what happens when you have the best record in baseball. Or maybe this is part of the reason why the Cubs have the best record in baseball.
Anyway, if you're worried about the Cubs' doing an '07 New York Mets this season, don't. I know: Carlos Zambrano and his right shoulder have a Friday appointment with an MRI machine. And Alfonso Soriano is already on the DL. And Reed Johnson's back is barking. And Jim Edmonds left Wednesday night's game with a sore foot. And the Cubs were just swept out of Florida by the Rays.
But it's time for Cubs followers to take deep, calming breaths. It's going to be OK. Probably. I'm not saying team officials are already preparing the parade route through The Loop, but there are reasons -- 10 of them, to be exact -- to think the Cubs can still keep holding hands with their favorite letter: W.
1. The NL Central
Pittsburgh, Houston and Cincinnati already trail the Cubs by double digits. Milwaukee can hit, but do you trust the Brewers' pitching staff and defense? I don't.
St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan is a genius, but unless he can heal Albert Pujols' injured left calf, the Cardinals eventually will be wheat toast.
2. Circle of Friendship
Yeah, they're 18 games over .500, which helps, but the Cubs sure act as if they like each other.
"The mark of a good team is when something goes wrong, someone else is there to pick you up," Theriot said.
This applies to everyone but Marmol. They just let Marmol lie there.
But you get Theriot's point. The Cubs' clubhouse hasn't always been the happiest place on earth.
"I think we all are genuinely pulling for each other and care for each other," Theriot said.
3. The Great Switch
Kerry Wood went from starter (when he could actually lift his right arm) to closer. Ryan Dempster went from closer to starter. No offseason move has had more of an impact on the Cubs' success.
Dempster is 8-2 with a 2.76 ERA. Wood has 18 saves.
"We felt [Wood] was made for this job," said Hendry, who compared him to a Goose Gossage-type of closer.
"Putting Demp in the rotation and putting Woody at the back end kind of made everything flow a little easier," first baseman Derrek Lee said. "Now you can go to [Bob] Howry in the seventh, Marmol in the eighth and Woody in the ninth. That's like lights out. So you're making the game like a six-inning game now. It's been kind of fun to watch. We get a lead going into those innings and we feel like we're going to win it."
4. The Fukudome Effect
You can make the argument that right fielder Kosuke Fukudome is the best free-agent signing by the Cubs in a long time -- at least, during Hendry's nearly seven-year tenure. Fukudome is like your first beer; he's an acquired taste. The more you watch him, the more you understand why he matters so much to this team.
He didn't come cheap ($12 million per), and he doesn't hit for much power. But gone are the days of the Jacque Jones 16-hopper throw to second base. Fukudome plays Wrigley Field's confusing right-field winds and wall angles as if he grew up on ivy and brick.
Plus, he's a left-handed hitter in a predominantly right-handed lineup.
Plus, he gets on base, takes pitches, hits to all fields, and can bat almost anywhere in the order (he was moved to leadoff Wednesday, and will stay there until Soriano's return). And best of all, he hasn't told any boring Chunichi Dragons stories.
Jim Edmonds is hitting .300 with two homers and 14 RBIs since he signed with the Cubs in mid-May after San Diego released him. You've never heard of infielder/outfielder Micah Hoffpauir, but he can rake. Sean Gallagher is 3-3 since getting called up. Johnson is money with runners in scoring position (.392, leads the NL). Mark DeRosa plays anywhere. And Felix Pie, who was the Cubs' Opening Day center fielder, is available.
In other words, the Cubs can handle the temporary loss of Soriano, who says he and his broken left hand will be back before the All-Star break.
"We've had a lot of pleasant surprises," said manager Lou Piniella.
6. The Nontrades
Just so you know, the Cubs were never going to trade DeRosa during the offseason. But they would have listened to any offer (prospects big leaguer 10 bats -- OK, not 10 bats) for starter Jason Marquis, who was pitcher non grata during the '07 postseason.
Nobody called with a deal worth doing, so the Cubs kept him. Lucky them.
He's won his last four starts and has a 1.96 ERA in his last three starts. Marquis' streak comes in especially handy after the meltdown of former starter (and now Iowa Cub) Rich Hill.
"It worked out perfect for us," said Lee.
7. The True Rookie
DeRosa called Theriot before the season began. They started talking about catcher Geovany Soto.
"He's going to be the rookie of the year," DeRosa told Theriot.
DeRosa might be right. If nothing else, Soto (12 HRs, 43 RBIs) might be the NL's starting catcher in the All-Star Game. He's about 500,000 ahead in the voting. If it holds up, he'll become the league's first-ever rookie catcher to start the game.
Hendry said he felt so good about Soto "that we didn't do a thing about our catching during the offseason."
"He's changed our lineup," Lee said. "He showed flashes of it last year, but you never know how it's going to translate into playing every day. Dropping him in that sixth spot, he's an RBI guy. He's a force in that sixth hole. That makes a deep lineup. There's not an easy out in there."
Even with the impending sale of the team, the Cubs have some wiggle room when it comes to taking on more salary this season.
"Playing good baseball is good business," Kenney said. "We've grown the business and we can grow the payroll."
That's corporate-ese for, "We've got some cash in our money clip come trade deadline."
9. Big Z
Carlos Zambrano is a knucklehead, but he's a talented knucklehead. He gives you absolutely what you need to go long and far: an anchor No. 1 starter.
But you could tell something wasn't right with him during Wednesday night's loss to the Rays. So now the Cubs, who said Thursday that Big Z will miss Tuesday's scheduled start against the Orioles, wait for the MRI results.
If it's serious, then deep, calming breaths probably won't do the trick. The Cubs have options, but they don't have another Zambrano.If it isn't serious, then you'll actually be able to hear Hendry's sigh of relief from miles away.
10. They're Not Those Guys
Piniella likes to tap the brakes on all this postseason talk, but deep down he knows the Cubs could win a pennant. They have the rotation (depending on the severity of Zambrano's injury), the bullpen and the hitting to do it. And the negative vibes are at a minimum.
"We have a good team," Lee said. "We knew that coming into spring training, but now we're proving it to ourselves, that we're as good as we thought we were."
And this from Kenney: "This is different from '03 and '04 [when the Cubs couldn't close out the Florida Marlins in the '03 NLCS and couldn't even reach the playoffs in '04]. In '03 it was, 'Are we this good?' This year it's, 'We are this good.'"
If nothing else, so far, so good. MRI, willing.Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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