No Prior, no Wood … no problem

CHICAGO – When the Cubs brought Greg Maddux back home two years ago, after he dangled on the free-agent market until February, he was a Hall of Famer headed for the back of the starting rotation.

Maddux was expected to set a great example for Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano, pitch 200 innings, get his 300th win and provide warm and fuzzy feelings for the daily sellout crowds at Wrigley Field.

Because of the recurring injuries to Prior and Wood, he has been every bit as vital for the Cubs as he was when he was winning Cy Young awards in Atlanta. His victory over the White Sox on Saturday at U.S. Cellular Field was his seventh this year, leading the staff, and his 23rd in the last two seasons. Prior's win against the Sox on Sunday gave him and Wood 20 wins between them during the same time span.

Naturally, true to character, Maddux denies feeling extra responsibility because of the injuries that have limited Prior and Wood.

"No," Maddux said. "I pitch every fifth day. I get ready for four days, pitch, then I have four more days to get ready for the next time. Every fifth day I just want to put myself in position [to win]. Period."

Given the chaos, both in the rotation and the bullpen, the Cubs would have been sunk by now without Maddux. Period.

Instead, they're at an upwardly mobile moment in the season. Prior, on the disabled list with elbow injuries at the start of the season and most recently with a hairline fracture in his elbow, returned with six shutout innings. Wood, out since April 30 with a sore shoulder, will start Wednesday against Milwaukee.

After taking two of three against the White Sox, the Cubs were two games over .500 and 8½ games behind St. Louis in the National League Central. But they are in decent shape to make a playoff push as none of the wild-card contenders was more than seven games over .500.

"We have a lot of time left," Maddux said. "We're .500, a little better right now, and usually you need to get to 20 games over to have a legitimate shot at the postseason. You don't have to win your division. You have to be one of the four best. The Astros came from a lot further back last year than we are this year, so I don't think it's unrealistic at all."

Given that they opened the season without a closer and have had shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, Prior and Wood on the DL for a combined 164 days, the Cubs could have been buried early – an affliction not visited upon a Dusty Baker team since 1996.

Here's a look at the guys who have kept them treading water:

  • Derrek Lee: Your first-half MVP keeps carrying a lineup that gets thin in a hurry behind Aramis Ramirez and Jeromy Burnitz.

  • Maddux: It took him five starts get his first win of the season, but at 7-4 he's rolling toward what could be his 18th consecutive season with at least 15 victories. He's gone at least five innings in 15 of 16 starts and won five of his last six starts, heating up as the spring chill disappears.

    "It takes you longer to get going when you're older," Baker said. "When you have an older car, it doesn't run as well at first. As the weather is warming up, he is getting looser."

    Maddux figures to be even more of a key as the season rolls on, as he's gone 29-12 after July 1 the last three seasons. But don't ask why he does his best work in the summer. "I didn't know that," he said. "I just pitch. It's just pitching."

  • Glendon Rusch: Valuable as a fifth starter a year ago, the veteran lefty is the quintessential swingman. Baker has needed every bit of his versatility this season, using him out of the bullpen early in the year and them moving him into the rotation for a run of 10 starts. He's likely to go back to the bullpen with Wood and Prior back and newcomer Jerome Williams in the No. 5 slot.

    Rusch was dominant for one three-start stretch, holding Houston, Colorado and San Diego to 13 hits and two runs in 24 innings. He's had a 3.32 ERA as a starter but is needed in the bullpen because lefties Mike Remlinger and Will Ohman aren't earning Baker's trust.

  • Neifi Perez: Cardinals manager Tony La Russa winces when asked about Perez's being perhaps the best backup middle infielder in the big leagues, saying he looks at him as a regular. That's what he has been since Garciaparra tore his groin muscle on April 20, and he has been adequate in the field and a streaky hitter at the plate.

    Perez hit .368 in April but has been sliding ever since. He's a free swinger who rarely walks, making him a poor fit for the top of the lineup. Baker hits him No. 2 because he believes he needs Todd Walker in the sixth spot as protection for Ramirez. Garciaparra is in Mesa, Ariz., rebuilding strength in his leg and hopes to be back for the second half of the season. The Cubs have a torrid hitter in Triple-A shortstop Ronny Cedeno (.371-7-30 in 52 games), but Baker's not one to go with kids.

  • Ryan Dempster: The surgically repaired Canadian has been a natural in the closer's role, converting 11 consecutive save chances since blowing his first one on May 11. He's held opponents to a .214 batting average since moving to the bullpen, and is still learning how to use his pitches to maximum advantage.

    Along with second-year right-hander Michael Wuertz, Dempster has quieted the craziness of at least the eighth and ninth innings. Getting to those guys remains a challenge.

  • Jim Hendry: If the Cubs are headed toward the playoffs, they will look back on May 28 as a turning point. That's the day their general manager foisted LaTroy Hawkins off on the San Francisco Giants.

Like the Todd Hundley trade with Los Angeles before the 2003 season, Hendry not only got rid of his biggest problem but got talent in return. Williams, only 23 but already buried deep in the doghouse in San Francisco, compiled a 2.22 ERA in four Triple-A starts for the Cubs before beating Milwaukee in a start last week and pitching two shutout innings of relief on Sunday.

"It was my first time getting traded," said Williams, who was acquired along with former first-round pick David Aardsma, another right-hander. "I just have to take advantage of it with a new team. Hopefully I can do well with this team. I'm just happy."

Hendry will be as important as anyone for the Cubs the next five weeks. He is under pressure to upgrade left field, where the platoon of Todd Hollandsworth and rookie Jason Dubois ranks 14th in the NL in OPS. Talks with the Colorado Rockies for Preston Wilson were heavy two weeks ago. Other possibilities include Tampa Bay's Aubrey Huff and Cincinnati's Austin Kearns.

Expect Hendry to add at least one veteran reliever, maybe two, before the July 31 deadline. His on-the-fly moves in 2003 (Ramirez, Kenny Lofton and Randall Simon) led to a division title. Catching the Cardinals might be out of the question, but an upgraded roster – with help from both within and without – could result in a wild-card ticket into the playoffs. And that's how the last three World Series winners punched their ticket.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.