'Hope' is Cubs' Magic Word

Hope is about the only thing the Cubs can hang their hats on right now.

They hope they can catch fire.

They hope they can pull off what Houston did last year and play red-hot baseball in the closing months of the season.

But the reality is that things look pretty bleak right now. Despite the return of star starting pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, the Cubs headed into the All-Star break having dropped eight out of 11 games. Not only are they miles behind St. Louis in the National League Central, they are also in danger of falling out of the wild-card picture.

With a starting staff of Wood, Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Greg Maddux and Jerome Williams, it's not out of the question that the Cubs could put together some impressive winnings streaks. They won seven in a row at one point and had another stretch in which their pitchers threw 25 straight scoreless innings.

It's an up-and-down offense that will have to come through.

The Cubs will cross their fingers that Jerry Hairston will prove to be an adequate leadoff man after Corey Patterson and Neifi Perez failed. They need Aramis Ramirez and Jeromy Burnitz to try to complement Triple Crown hopeful Derrek Lee.

And they need to get their inconsistent bullpen in order. Early in the season, the setup men were golden and closer LaTroy Hawkins struggled.

The Cubs traded Hawkins, starter Ryan Dempster became the closer, and he's been outstanding. The trouble is, the middle relievers have been blowing up.

Getting the offense, starting pitching and relievers on the same page could help if the Cubs are going to contend.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Whether he has been a hero or a goat, Corey Patterson has always faced the media and talked about what has been going right or wrong.

But on Thursday night, he was too upset to face the music.

Patterson was stunned to receive the news that he had been demoted to Triple-A Iowa. It's the first time the 25-year-old played in the minors since 2001.

The move was surprising because the Cubs appeared they were going to stick it out with Patterson even though he was hitting .168 in June and July.

Patterson has come up with some dramatic game-winning home runs and defensive gems in his career. But his high strikeout totals and lack of discipline at the plate has fans and management frustrated after spending so much time in the big leagues.

"Corey has obviously been in a funk and we're not helping him right now by having him try to get out of it under these conditions," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. "I think it's better he clears his head."

How long Patterson stays in Iowa will depend on how well he is getting his swing back. There is speculation that he is angry about the demotion and may ask for a trade.

Patterson was the third overall pick in the 2003 draft.

--OF Matt Murton made his major league debut and picked up a hit in his first at-bat off of Florida's Dontrelle Willis on Friday night. He finished 2-for-2 with a walk, run and RBI. Murton was called up from Double-A West Tenn on Thursday night.

--The Cubs figured they were just an impressive winning streak away from taking the lead in the National League wild-card picture.

Instead, they went out and lost eight straight and were getting buried in the wild-card race.

Chicago dropped a four-game series against Atlanta and dropped a doubleheader to the Braves, 6-0 and 9-4, on Thursday.

The Cubs scored just one run on 17 hits in the first three games against the Braves and never had the lead in any of those games. But they took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the eighth in Thursday night's game and promptly gave up six runs when relievers Roberto Novoa (2-2) and Glendon Rusch each gave up three runs. Starter Jerome Williams left the game after seven innings with a 4-3 lead.

--1B Derrek Lee took batting practice but was too sore to play in Friday night's game at Florida. It was the third straight game he had missed. But he was back in the lineup Saturday.

--RHP Mark Prior gave up six runs in 4 2/3 innings in a 6-0 loss to Atlanta in the first game of a doubleheader on Thursday. Prior has not beaten Atlanta in a regular-season game and has not won in July since his rookie season in 2002.

--RHP Sergio Mitre, who has been struggling after a demotion to the bullpen, threw 2 1/3 shutout innings against Atlanta in the first game of a doubleheader on Thursday after Mark Prior left the game.

BY THE NUMBERS: .168 -- Corey Patterson's batting average since the start of June, which helped earn him a demotion to Triple-A Iowa on July 7.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "At the drop of a hat, your time can come." -- Rookie OF Adam Greenberg on his surprise promotion from Double-A West Tenn to the parent club on July 7.

ROSTER REPORT

ROTATION:
1. RHP Carlos Zambrano
2. RHP Greg Maddux
3. RHP Kerry Wood
4. RHP Mark Prior
5. RHP Jerome Williams

BULLPEN:
RHP Ryan Dempster (closer)
LHP Mike Remlinger
RHP Michael Wuertz
LHP Will Ohman
RHP Roberto Novoa
RHP Sergio Mitre
LHP Glendon Rusch

LINEUP:
1. CF Jerry Hairston Jr.
2. SS Neifi Perez
3. 1B Derrek Lee
4. RF Jeromy Burnitz
5. 3B Aramis Ramirez
6. 2B Todd Walker
7. LF Todd Hollandsworth/Matt Murton
8. C Michael Barrett

RESERVES:
C Henry Blanco
INF/OF Jose Macias
INF Ronny Cedeno
OF Adam Greenberg

MEDICAL WATCH:

RHP Mark Prior, slight fracture in right elbow, 15-day DL.
RHP Kerry Wood, shoulder, 15-day DL.
RHP Chad Fox, elbow, 60-day DL.
SS Nomar Garciaparra, left groin, 15-day DL, out 2-3 months.
RHP Scott Williamson (Tommy John surgery in 2004) will not open the season with the club, but the Cubs think there is a chance he could be on the hill in August or September.


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