The question is: "How?" The answer is: "Pitching." Even in the parallel baseball universe known as Cubbieland, pitching is the answer to most of the sport's results-related questions.
The question is: "How?" The answer is: "Pitching." Even in the parallel baseball universe known as Cubbieland, pitching is the answer to most of the sport's results-related questions. Out-of-town writers come into Chicago asking how the Cubs magically turned around their season. National TV types, armed with video of Lou Piniella going postal on an umpire, suggest that the manager "willed" the Cubs to victory. Many fans argue that the major impetus was Carlos Zambrano using Michael Barrett's face as a pinata. Folks can believe whatever they want - including that the baseball gods finally are feeling sorry for their favorite victims after 98-plus years of torment and torture. Here on Planet Reality, we'll stick with the more boring but legitimate explanation: pitching. That's why Zambrano's recent problems are a cause for Cubbie consternation. After a dominant July that thrust him into the Cy Young conversation and carried the Cubs into contention, Zambrano went 0-for-August. With Wednesday night's 6-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, he has dropped four straight starts, compiling an 8.25 ERA in the process. "I'm still waiting for the guy that won nine in a row," Piniella said of Zambrano, who actually won 9 of 11 during his best stretch. "I don't know what the problem is ... but we need for the guy to get back to pitching the way he was." Signing a $91.5 million contract extension was supposed to have eased his mind but apparently it hasn't. Maybe Zambrano now is worried about Lance Briggs' next contract, next car and next lie. Striking out Prince Fielder in Wednesday's first inning and then celebrating as if he had won Game 7 of the World Series is part of what makes Zambrano fun, but such histrionics by Cra-Z amount to little more than frosting on a cow-chip if he later implodes. With Ben Sheets starting for the Brewers after spending the previous six weeks on the disabled list - and with Astros ace Roy Oswalt shutting out the Cardinals in Houston - this was an opportunity for Zambrano and the Cubs to take command in the NL Central. Instead, Sheets outpitched Zambrano, took advantage of the Cubs' hitting woes and pulled the Brewers back into second place, 1 1/2 games behind the Cubs. (St. Louis is two back.) Perhaps more importantly, Sheets lifted the spirits of a Milwaukee club that looked just about ready to pack it in after having lost 14 of its previous 19 games. "The ship feels like it's sinking," Brewers manager Ned Yost said, "but the guys are on the boat, pouring the water out." Incredibly, this was the first victory by one of Yost's top three starters since Sheets beat the Cubs at Wrigley two months earlier. Here we go with the pitching-is-everything theme again. When the Brewers stopped doing it well, they stopped winning. Will Wednesday's victory signal a renewal? We'll see. Some dude named Manny Parra takes the mound tonight at Wrigley. The Cardinals somehow have cobbled together a workable rotation - rumor has it, duct tape has been instrumental - but how long can they keep winning with converted relievers and castoffs? So unless Zambrano's funk continues well into September, the Cubs remain well-positioned to win the division despite their season-long offensive power shortage. All five starters have winning records. Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis have reached double-digits, and Rich Hill and Sean Marshall could join that club by season's end. The group has been aided by a bullpen that has improved significantly over the course of the year. "They've all pitched well, and at different times, too, which has helped," Piniella said. "I've got confidence in any of the starters to give us an ample chance to win. They've struggled from time to time on an individual basis, but it seems like when somebody's been struggling, somebody else is pitching well and picked him up." In a stark contrast to the Wood-Prior Axis of Injury that Dusty Baker dealt with for three years running, Piniella has been amazingly fortunate. While Dusty sent 15 different starters to the mound in 2006 - including eight rookies - Lou has had to use only six starters this entire season. (The sixth, Angel Guzman, was needed just three times.) The guess here is that the 2007 Cubs are the only team in recent big-league history to have as many starting catchers as pitchers. Now all the Cubs need is for Zambrano to earn his keep again. If he does, there's every reason to believe they can finish with the requisite 83 victories for a division title. Mike Nadel (email@example.com) is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Read his blog, The Baldest Truth, at www.thebaldesttruth.com.