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News and Notes From Spring Training

chi_u_lilly_576Sorry for the three-day delay with posts, there is just very little going on. With that in mind, I will try to squeeze out whatever stories are happening and give you some updates on the Cubs.

Here are a few stories that have happened over the past few days.

Aramis Ramirez returns to the diamond

Ramirez has missed some time this spring because of a sore right tricep, but he returned on Tuesday against the Royals as a DH and went 2-3 with an RBI. He hasn’t played since March 13th, but he looked like he hadn’t missed any time in his three at bats. Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t Look Now, But The Cubbies Might Just Have What It Takes

1A little over half way to the end of the season, the Cubs have finally jumped past the St. Louis Cardinals and stole the division lead.

Before the All-Star Break, the Cubs split a four-game series with the Cards. Since the break, however, the Cubs are 8-2. The Cardinals are 4-6 since the break, including losing two of three against the Phillies in their most recent series.

The Cards now go from facing the defending champions to facing this season’s best team, the L.A Dodgers, in a four-game series. The Cubs face the Astros, and have a chance to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the division. Read the rest of this entry »

Come to Think of It…Can Anyone Challenge the Cubs in the NL Central?

12I was asked to appear on a national overnight sports radio program last night, and was asked to dissect the NL Central division.

Of course, on paper, the Cubs are the obvious favorites. But we all know that titles aren’t won on paper. Yet if you look at what the other teams in the division have done this offseason, you certainly have to like the Cubbies chances to three-peat this year.

Now, I recently wrote an NL Central preview for this site, so I won’t go into detail. But in reviewing the challengers to the Cubs throne, two candidates emerge above the others.

And it may surprise you to learn that the Milwaukee Brewers are NOT one of them.

Oh sure, the Brewers have a talented lineup. Their offense is powerful and should be able to score runs in bunches.

And yes, I realize they won the wild card last season. But the subtraction of CC Sabathia is a huge loss for this team.

What he did in the later half of the season, and especially down the stretch is difficult to put into words. He was simply amazing, and they did not even try to replace him, though that would have been a difficult task.

The Brewers also lost Ben Sheets, and the end result is not enough starting pitching to seriously contend with the Cubs, assuming good health for the northsiders.

Meanwhile, starting pitching looks to be the key for two of the Cubs potential challengers in 2009. The St. Louis Cardinals are always tough—it’s a great rivalry as well as a very well coached team. Tony LaRussa and his pitching coach, Dave Duncan, do more with talent than almost anyone in the league.

Their key for this season has to be the re-emergance of former ace Chris Carpenter, who has looked terrific this spring.

If Carpenter is healthy and productive, and Motte can close effectively, LaRussa’s Cards could emerge as our main threat in the Central.

Likewise, there are a lot of “if’s” for the Cincinnati Reds. But if (there’s that word again) that rotation produces as well as it looks on paper, and their young players continue to develop, they could be a dark-horse sleeper in the division.

The Reds have talented youngsters like Joey Votto and Jay Bruce in their lineup. But it’s the starting staff that looks most impressive. With Micah Owings named as fifth starter today, the starting five of Austin Harang, Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, and Owings has the potential to be very good.

Arroyo is battling carpal tunnel syndrome, but another youngster, Homer Bailey, who lost the battle to Owings, looked good in the spring and appears ready if Arroyo can’t go. Arroyo has never missed a start due to injury.

The Houston Astros could conceivably contend, but a lot would have to go right for them. The Pirates seem to be heading in the right direction, but .500 is still a more realistic goal for them in 2009.

Speaking of the health of Carpenter, health could be a huge factor for our Cubbies this season as well. We all know that Milton Bradley can hit when healthy, but that’s the problem. Keeping him on the field is a major question mark.

And Rich Harden needs constant monitoring as well. So, while the Cubs are the best team on paper, paper is fragile and can tear easily.

Let’s hope we’re made of construction paper this season, come to think of it, or the Cardinals and Reds may be knocking at the door.

-Bob Warja

Cubs Win 3-2: 11th Inning Heroics by Henry Blanco

The Chicago Cubs packed the place again as they beat the Cardinals 3-2 in a game that went 11, allowing the Cubbie faithful an extra two innings of free baseball.

Henry Blanco stepped to the plate with bases loaded against an infield and outfield that were both brought in with the expectation of Blanco not being able to hammer one out of the park.

Derek Lee led off with a walk, followed by an Aramis Ramirez single and an intentional walk to Kosuke Fukudome before Blanco hit a line-drive past Cesar Izturis to drive in Lee and win the game.

Ted Lilly started the game and pitched spectacular, but got hit with Rich Hardin syndrome with the Cubs offense seemingly unable to score runs.

Alfonso Soriano, Fukudome and Mark DeRosa were all hitless, going a combined 0-13. All-in-all, however, the Cubs were able to muster 10 hits, but only were able to score through the air.

Jim Edmonds wins todays MVC award (Most Valuable Cub) with a pair of solo jacks. The first came off Cardinals starter Branden Looper in the second inning, and followed it up by tossing his bat to the Cardinals dugout, as if to say, “How do you like me now?”

He then knocked another one out of the park into left field, barely clearing the ivy. This home run tied the game in the seventh inning and allowed the Cubs to send the game into extras.

It wasn’t all great for Edmonds, though. He also had a throwing error and grounded into a double play.

Albert Pujols got a lead-off single in the top of the 10th inning, but was thrown out on an attempt to steal second, leading to a scoreless inning by both teams.

The win went to Bob Howry, who looked strong in his one inning of work, striking out two batters.

Jeff Samardzija pitched well again, as he continues to surprise the Cubs with his lights out pitching. He went two innings this time, allowing just one hit and one walk. Over the season, his ERA is a minuscule 1.56, which bodes well for the bullpen.

The Brewers play tonight against the Washington Nationals, and if they lose, the Cubs lead will be up to six games in the NL Central, and they now have a seven game lead over the Cards.

These two teams face off again tomorrow at 2:55 pm, Carlos Zambrano (12-4) faces Todd Wellemeyer (8-4) for the second game of this weekend series.

Come to Think of it…How Tough is the Cubs NL Central Competition

Now that the dust has settled a bit from the whirlwind of trade activity over the past week, let’s see where this division stands in regard to the three main contenders. Yes, I say three because you can’t count out the Cardinals just because they haven’t (and most likely will not) answer the moves of the Cubs and Brewers.

The NL Central has undergone quite a transformation over the past year. In 2007, it was considered the weakest division in baseball. Now it is probably the strongest in the National League. Amongst both leagues, I’d rank the NL Central second behind the AL East in terms of strength. That’s a credit to how well all three contenders have played this year, as well as recognizing the improvements made in the offseason and during the season.

I’ll analyze each of the three rivals and come up with my prediction of a division winner (I’ll give you a hint, they wear blue and sing a happy little song called “Go Cubs Go” after every home win. Other than that, I can’t tell you because then I’d have to kill you).

St. Louis Cardinals

Everyone is asking, what will the Cards do in response to the Brewers and Cubs recent trade activity? Well, heck, I’m asking how in the world are they still in this race and doing so well with all of the injuries they’ve had? If they haven’t made any trade splashes thus far, in response to injuries, then I hardly would expect anything major to occur just in response to what the Cubs & Brewers have done.

I mean, they lost their best hitter, Albert Pujols, yet kept right on truckin’ along. They still don’t know when their ace pitcher, Chris Carpenter, is coming back. Those two things alone would force most teams to make some desperate moves. But that just isn’t the Cards style.

They did make a very smart and cost efficient acquisition in the offseason of pitcher Kyle Lohse, and it has paid off handsomely thus far. But Wellemyre’s phenomenal May appears over, and they don’t know how much they can count on him going forward. Mark Mulder came off the DL then went right back on it again and his career may be over. Adam Wainwright will not return until August.

But offensively, All-star Ryan Ludwig has been a pleasant surprise and Ankiel and Pujols continue to rake. Aaron Miles and Yadier Molina are both hitting over .300.

St. Louis currently sits in third place, 4.5 games in back of the Cubs, and just .5 in back of Milwaukee. Despite its likely inactivity at the trading deadline, Tony LaRussa, Dave Duncan & Co. are too good to dismiss. They will be a factor most of the season, until fading in September, finishing third.

Milwaukee Brewers

Of course, the big news exciting Brewers fans has been the acquisition of star pitcher CC Sabathia. And with good reason, for Sabathia is the reigning Cy Young award winner in the AL, and had been pitching very well of late for the Indians. But the question always comes down to the health of Ben Sheets. There has never been any doubt about the talent of Sheets. It’s just that he’s had difficulty staying on the field. So far, so good as Sheets is 10-3 with a 2.85 ERA and might be the starting pitcher in the All-star game.

But as soon as the news of Sabathia came about, the Brewers had to put Jeff Suppan on the DL. Though he is scheduled to return the fifth day following the break, he has not been pitching well this season, sporting a 5-6 record with a 4.76 ERA. Dave Bush struck out a career high 13 batters on Thursday, and has been pitching well of late. Manny Para has been a pleasant surprise, going 8-2 with a 3.65 ERA so far. Overall, however, Brewer pitchers rank 7th in ERA and 9th in BAA. Expect Sheets to miss time in the second half.

Offensively, All-star Ryan Braun leads the attack, but shortstop JJ Hardy has been on fire recently. Fellow All-star Corey Hart is hitting well. And though his numbers are down across the board, Prince Fielder is always dangerous. But they are very much an “all of nothing” offense. Overall, they rank 6th in runs scored and only 9th in OBP.

The Brewers currently sit in second place, four games behind the Cubs. While there’s no question that the Sabathia deal has energized the club, and has sent a strong message that they want to win now, their bullpen struggles and they will come up just short again, shades of 2007.

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs have missed Alfonso Soriano, and if his hand is strong when he comes back, they will receive a boost offensively when he returns after the All-star break.

Theriot continues to bat above .300 and the Cubs hope to prevent him from enduring the same kind of second half slump that occurred last season. Another possible concern is the continued struggles of Fukudome. His average is down to .282 and he has struck out 72 times already. He looks weak at the plate. Perhaps some time off will re-energize him, because the Cubs certainly need his left-handed bat in the lineup. In addition to the mainstays, Lee, Ramirez and De Rosa, Geo Soto has also improved the lineup considerably this year.

On the mound, the Cubs now have a very strong 1-4 rotation, with Zambrano again healthy and looking dominant. He is joined by fellow All-star Ryan Dempster, who has been a very pleasant surprise, newcomer Rich Harden and Ted Lilly. Jason Marquis and Sean Marshall will battle it out for the 5th spot the rest of the season. The key here is keeping Harden healthy. If they can, there will be no stopping the Cubs.

The Cubs currently sit in first place and expect them to remain there. Sure, there may be periods of inconsistency, especially if they don’t improve their play on the road. But they have the most depth and the experience of winning the division last year, so it’s on to the playoffs for our Cubbies again in 2008.

Come to think of it, the winner is…the Cubs!

Big Z Gives Nickname a Whole New Meaning

Carlos Zambrano allowed zero runs in his first start back after a stint on the 15-day DL today against the rival St. Louis Cardinals.

What’s even better is that the Cubs were able to pull off the win 2-1, which is different than the way they outscored teams earlier this season.

Zambrano allowed zero runs, four hits, two walks, and five strikeouts in six innings of work.

The only run for the Cardinals came on a two-out eighth inning home run by Albert Pujols, his 18th on the year.

The Cubs scored on a first inning home run by Kosuke Fukudome and a fourth inning home run by Geovany Soto.

Wood came in for the save in the ninth, his 22nd on the year, allowing just one runner to reach first base.

Soto was the Cubs Player of the Night, going three for three with a home run and an RBI.

The Hard Luck Player of the Night was Branden Looper of the Cardinals. Despite pitching seven innings and allowing just two runs, he still received the loss and struck out on both plate appearances.

The Cubs seem to be back on track with the return of Aramis Ramirez, Reed Johnson, and Carlos Zambrano.

Their lead in the NL Central opened up to 3.5 games, and they still have the second best record in baseball.

It seems like the slump is over, and I hope I am right. Tomorrow’s game is going to be pivotal, because winning the series against the Cards is going to be very important.

Hope everybody enjoyed their 4th of July, not to much drinking.

For me, it’s 1:30 in the morning and I am tired, good night.