That's all changed now, in the matter of a week. Cub fans around the world, including those who try to be even the most positive and optimistic, are ticked off, frustrated, downright depressed. Boiling points have been reached. Fans need a steam valve to vent the built up pain and frustration inside. There's a plethora of things wrong with this club, and the denial has to stop immediately if this team thinks that the second half of the season is going to be any different from the first half. Or the entire 2004 season for that matter.
That four-game winning streak that seemed to have the Cubs ready to explode on the National League ended in a 10-6 loss to the Brewers, who avoided the sweep last Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field. Still, it appeared like it was just a minor setback as the club prepared to finish the first half of the season strong.
But it would only get worse. And it all began with a huge baserunning blunder Friday afternoon. Cub fans thought the basepath screwups left the club when Moises Alou headed to San Francisco. Alas, they were wrong. Cutting into the visiting Washington Nationals' lead late in the game, the Cubs had just scored a run and found themselves down 4-3 with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning. Jeromy Burnitz, who drove in the Cubs' last run was standing on third base. He represented the tying run. All hopes of another Cubs' comeback and the chance to start a new winning streak rested in Burnitz's feet and his blue knee-high socks. A hit, a ground out to the right side, a lazy fly ball. That's all the Cubs and their fans needed to tie up the game and erase Livan Hernandez's bid for his twelfth win. Instead everyone got slapped in the face with a harsh dose of Cub reality - Burnitz got picked off third base by the Nationals' catcher, Brian Schneider. Yes, the catcher. Yes, third base. Yes, with one out and down one run in the bottom of the eighth inning. The score remained at 4-3 and the Cubs went on to lose, their second straight loss.
To add insult to injury, fans had to deal with Dusty Baker defending Burnitz after the game noting that Burnitz had been "playing his butt off" and essentially one of the players carrying the club this season. OK, so Baker made a good point, but would this be a one-time incident? Nope. Just three days later, Burnitz would get caught up between second and third while advancing from first on a single. The mistake happened this time in the late innings of a 3-0 game against the Braves on Monday. In an indecisive mind lapse, he held up from going to third, but rounded too hard to return to second. Without the mistake, the potential tying run would have been strolling to the plate.
Getting back to the Nationals series, the team from Washington D.C. completed the weekend sweep of the Cubs in front of the Wrigley faithful. And it was capped off where the Nats beat the Cubs despite two blown saves in the last game of the series. The Cubs rallied from down two runs in the bottom of both the ninth and eleventh innings. But the rallies weren't good enough for the win as Brian Schneider, yes, that pesky Nationals catcher, hit a solo shot for the win in the twelfth.
The Cubs packed up and headed to Atlanta only to get a swift kick in the teeth from the Braves in the first two games of a four-game series. They are in the middle of a six-game downward spiral. Even with help from Colorado who managed to take two of four from the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, collecting only their sixth and seventh road wins of the season, the Cubs are now sitting almost a baker's dozen back in the NL Central - 12.5 games. If the Cards swept the Rockies like they should have, the Cubs would be 14.5 games back.
It has been ugly to say the least. And the only thing uglier than Burnitz's baserunning has been the bat of Corey Patterson.
Listen up, Jim Hendry. Trade him. Sell him. Send him to AAA. List him on eBay. At this point you could even give him his outright release. Do whatever it is you have to do, but make sure he's not back in the lineup anytime soon. He's not helping anyone but the other teams at this point, and it's getting worse. He doesn't appear upbeat or positive that he'll pull out of this prolonged slump. And he sure as heck isn't infuriated, let alone mad, by it. Sure he may have to hear the boos from the crowd every time he disappoints, but every player has to deal with that when in a horrific slump. Patterson's way of dealing with it typically involves a slow stroll back to the dugout where he plops himself down on the bench in an emotionless funk to end all funks. At least Baker wised up and benched Patterson this week, but benching him isn't going to help the situation.
Nothing was more typical of this recent Corey Patterson slump than his lone at-bat on the Fourth of July. Patterson came off the bench to pinch hit with one out in the ninth inning against the Braves. The Cubs were down 4-0, but had a runner on first base. If Patterson could just reach safely, the Cubs could maybe make things interesting against a somewhat suspect Braves bullpen. But Patterson didn't have any booming fireworks in his bag of tricks - only a colossal dud. The game ended before most fans could even think about the possibility of a comeback. In a situation when one would think a slumping player with great speed would be looking to take a few pitches and find some way to just get on base, Patterson had other ideas. He slapped weakly at the first pitch hitting into a game-ending 3-6-3 double play. He should have been listed on eBay with a "Buy It Now" price or optioned to AAA before he even made it back to the clubhouse.
If Hendry and Baker had a clue, Patterson would have been red-tagged a long time ago. And Kenny Lofton would be starting in center field for the Cubs. Lofton? Yes, a legitimate leadoff hitter who is batting .354 in 50 games this season. Patterson is hitting just .232 this season, and, during the month of June his .157 average didn't even measure up to his roster weight of 180 pounds. But instead of Lofton, or any other prospect, Hendry and Baker continue to hold false high hopes and an interesting concern to be "delicate" in dealing with this oh-so fragile player.
But the pain still doesn't stop with the Patterson slump or the Burnitz baserunning blunders - it extends to the bullpen and an offense that still lives and dies with the long ball. Although Ryan Dempster has emerged as a decent closer, the cast of folks getting the Cubs to Dempster are a far cry from the bullpen that led the club to the NL Central title in 2003. When you mix in an epidemic of first-pitch pop outs and lazy fly balls from free-swinging, wannabe home run hitters, you have a recipe for a six-game losing streak and a sub-.500 record.
Derrek Lee has been the lone bright spot this season and has somehow been the Cubs' life support system. But even Lee, the NL's starting first baseman for the 2005 All-Star Game, is beginning to wear. The inflammation in his shoulder is worrisome, and when news broke that he left the game early Tuesday, well, an empty feeling ran through all of Cubdom reminding all that a bad situation can always get worse.
Players aside, there's no one bigger to blame for this slump than Dusty Baker. Every time the Cubs' skipper gives an interview it sounds like he has just gotten out of a sleep-deprived, drug-induced interrogation room on the television show 24. It's tough to tell what his deal has been the past two years, but he looks worn out and has been very nonchalant with his team. It seems like he keeps expecting everything to fall in place. He appears to avoid the difficult confrontation and wants to be too buddy-buddy with all his players. He constantly tries to protect them from the media and anything that could upset them or bring them down. But it's about time Baker wises up and realizes his players are professional athletes. They are adults and need to be treated as such. If he continues to shelter them like little children, they will continue to falter in the real world that is Major League Baseball.
With the season just half over and fourteen games left against the St. Louis Cardinals, anything can happen. Throw in the reality of the NL Wild Card and the situation gets a little brighter, but the Cubs need to change some things and bounce back soon. Otherwise, those fourteen games against the Cards will be for pride and nothing more.
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