Cubs Clawing Back Into the NL Central Race

Don't look now, but the Cubbies are in the rear-view mirror and they don't look to be going away. Our St. Louis-based Cubs fan staffer won't let us forget it.

After a very rough first six weeks of the season, the Cubs were on the brink of trailing the NL Central Division leading St. Louis Cardinals by double digit games. On May 16th, they found themselves in the middle of a road trip with a record that was four games under .500 (16-20) leaving them 7.5 games off the Cardinals' 24-13 pace. The Cards were pushing to move 15, even 20 games, above the .500 mark. Chicago had been struggling to find any consistency, including players in the lineup and starting pitchers in the rotation. Plagued with what seemed like more injuries than last season and a huge debacle at the closer position, the Cubs were in big trouble.

With a stretch of games filled with teams above the .500 mark coming up in late May until pretty much the All-Star break, the Cubs no doubt felt like the Grim Reaper was waiting to kill this season well before anyone thought he would have arrived. They absolutely needed to capitalize on the upcoming twelve games.

In a stretch that started on May 17, the Cubs had an easy schedule - well, easier than the weeks that would follow. Aside from three at Wrigley Field against the cross-town rival White Sox, the Cubs were matched up against weaker teams including Pittsburgh (2), Houston (3), and Colorado (4). Though it was still only the middle of May, the team clearly had to put some wins together to keep any playoff hopes alive. They needed at least an 8-4, if not a 9-3 run. If not, they could easily be staring at the reality of a 70-win season, 20+ games behind the Cardinals.

With two late-inning comeback victories against Jose Mesa and the Pirates, which also included back-to-back saves by Ryan Dempster, the Cubs showed some life. But the White Sox, sporting the best record in baseball, stormed into Wrigley Field taking the first two of three, before Mark Prior salvaged the last game of the series with a complete game victory. Still battling to find consistency, the Cubs took the first two against Houston, but failed to get the sweep losing the final game of the series. It just seemed like they couldn't string together a solid winning streak, and a disappointing loss to Houston at home was a sign that they didn't have that edge.

Then the beleaguered Colorado Rockies came to town. Who better than to build momentum against other than the Rockies? But after losing the first game of the four-game set, the Cubs and their fans were reeling. This wasn't good. With three games to go in that twelve-game stretch, they were only 5-4 and remained three games under .500.

On a day when Cubs fans around the world cringed in sympathetic pain and brutal frustration, everything started to fall into place - how little did they know. On the afternoon of Friday, May 27th, Mark Prior took a line shot off his pitching elbow and dropped like a pile of bricks in agony on the mound. Nobody wanted this, not even Cardinal or White Sox fans. All feared the worst - a shattered elbow. To everyone's relief, Prior only suffered a compression fracture. And though there was a chance he wouldn't be back in 2005, all were relieved to know the hard-luck pitcher still had a pitching career ahead of him. Still, just when the Cubs were trying to get back into this race, they lost their ace pitcher for at least a couple months.

Most analysts and writers immediately wrote off the Cubs. They're season was over. With Prior sidelined next to Kerry Wood, there was no way this Cubs team minus Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou, and Nomar Garciaparra could manage to muster enough offense to support a now-questionable pitching staff. Even with a trade that dumped LaTroy Hawkins to the Giants for some pitching help in Jerome Williams and David Aardsma, critics figured the Cubs were done. Just when Prior was coming back to 2003 form, he was knocked out of commission Karate Kid style. This was clearly the final blow to bury this club and bring the Grimm Reaper calling, right?

Wrong. The Cubs bounced back and are surging. Winning the game during which Prior was injured, the Cubs also won the next two, finishing that twelve game stretch with an 8-4 record. They also reached the .500 mark again and built some momentum heading into their west coast trip. They then went on to sweep LA, and just this past weekend took three of four against the San Diego Padres, who were coming off a 22-win month of May and held the best home record in baseball.

The Cubs are 9-1 since Mark Prior went down and 14-5 since the start of the Pirates' series on May 17. Thanks to some off-season moves that surgically removed some clubhouse cancer, Dusty Baker has this club believing in him and each other. More importantly, they are playing like a team.

New players are stepping up to lead this squad.

Glendon Rusch has filled in for the second straight season for an injured Kerry Wood. The lefty with an ear-to-ear smile has gone at least seven innings in each of his last three starts, including a complete game shutout in the series opener against San Diego. Besides setting the tone for the series against the Padres, Rusch's performance improved his record to 5-1 and came at a time when the bullpen needed a night off.

Ryan Dempster has proven that he is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. In his first full year back, Dempster has emerged as a solid closer combining a mid-90s fastball with a hard slider. He's given the Cubs a closer that can deliver a one-two-three inning, and his performance has only boosted Todd Wellemeyer and Michael Wuertz to work their tails off in their setup roles.

On the offensive side, Neifi Perez has almost made fans forget about Nomar Garciaparra's injury. Perez was a spark for the Cubs at the end of their disappointing 2004 season showing he can make the best of tough situations. He's stepped up in a big way in 2005. Compliments of a fourteen-game hitting streak Perez is now carrying a .325 average with 7 HRs and 26 RBIs.

But the star of this team and the reason the Cubs aren't sitting fifteen games back already is none other than Derrek Lee. The Cubs' first baseman is leading the league in all Triple Crown categories with a .385 average, 17 home runs, and 52 RBIs. He continues to dominate at the plate, and pitchers have not figured out how to pitch around him. Lee is a quiet, humble leader who plays the game the way it was meant to be played. Like any great leader, his example has shown his teammates the way, and his qualities have transcended to them during Chicago's resurgence.

The Cubs return to Wrigley Field for a home stand starting Monday, which includes series against Toronto, Boston, and Florida. They have their work cut out for them, and are still sitting five and a half games behind the Cards. Considering the disabled list paper trail, the Chicago Cubs are alive and kicking with a 30-25 record. They're proving the critics wrong. There's no doubt the fans at the Friendly Confines will be scoreboard watching during the first series against the Blue Jays. The World Champion Red Sox will be visiting St. Louis at the same time before making a rare trip to Chicago this weekend. All of Cubdom will be hoping for Boston to repeat their sweep of St. Louis in the 2004 World Series as the Cubs continue to claw their way back into the NL Central race.

Got comments or questions? Email them to pete@petekhazen.com


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