The Cubs opened the season with news that The Tribune Co. planned to sell the team. The offense struggled as the year began, particularly Alfonso Soriano, who was adjusting to his new role in center field. Soriano, who did not homer all month, missed a week after straining his left hamstring, and he switched back to left field upon returning. Cesar Izturis was the Cubs' Opening Day shortstop, but in an effort to infuse some energy into the lineup, manager Lou Piniella gave Ryan Theriot a shot at the position. Theriot would become the team's everyday shortstop, and Izturis was later traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Rich Hill gave up one run over his first three starts of the season, all Cubs wins. The bullpen, however, combined to go 0-7, and the Cubs finished the month 0-6 in one-run games.
The Cubs won their first one-run game on May 6, but they went 2-6 in that category for the month. With Wade Miller and Angel Guzman both out of the No. 5 spot in the rotation, Ryan Dempster went from closer to starter -- and soon back to closer -- while Sean Marshall ultimately became the team's No. 5 starter. The pitching performance of the month came from Jason Marquis, who threw a complete-game, three-hit shutout against the Pirates. Derrek Lee missed four games with neck spasms, but he returned triumphantly with a pinch-hit grand slam in the Cubs' 11-6 win over the White Sox on May 19. The team held a players-only meeting before the final game of the month and finished May by losing four straight games.
June was when the season turned around for the Cubs. Right-hander Carlos Zambrano and catcher Michael Barrett tussled in the dugout and clubhouse on June 1 during the Cubs' 8-5 loss to the Braves, and Piniella was ejected the next day for arguing with third-base umpire Mark Wegner. Piniella was suspended for four games, but the Cubs caught fire, winning 17 of their next 25 games, including a three-game road sweep of the White Sox for the first time since Interleague Play began in 1997. Aramis Ramirez opened the final series of the month with a walk-off home run to beat the Brewers, who at the time led the National League Central. The Cubs took two of three from Milwaukee to finish June one game under .500. Soriano was named the NL Player of the Month after hitting .336 with a league-leading 11 home runs. Mike Fontenot, who was recalled June 9, led the NL with a .397 average, while Barrett was traded to San Diego.
Zambrano and Ted Lilly both went 5-1 in July, and Zambrano was named NL Pitcher of the Month as the Cubs continued their push toward the top of the NL Central. They began the month 7 1/2 games behind Milwaukee and finished it only one game back. The Cubs opened the second half of the season with seven wins in their first eight games and acquired veteran catcher Jason Kendall from the Oakland Athletics. Ramirez hit .351 for the month, including .556 (15-for-27) with runners in scoring position, and paced the Cubs offense with 22 RBIs. The offense still had its difficulties, manufacturing just 13 home runs all month.
Soriano strained his right quad on Aug. 5 and was placed on the disabled list for the first time in his career. On the same day the Cubs lost Soriano, they welcomed back right-hander Kerry Wood, who pitched one inning of relief in his first Major League appearance since June 2006. After being named NL Pitcher of the Month in July, Zambrano went 0-4 with a 7.06 ERA in August. Carlos Marmol, on the other hand, went 2-0 with a 1.10 ERA in 13 August appearances out of the bullpen. The Cubs moved into a tie atop the NL Central on Aug. 1, and from Aug. 17 through the end of the month, they maintained either a tie or sole possession of first in the division.
The power that had been lacking all season finally appeared in September, when the Cubs belted more home runs than they had in the two previous months combined. Soriano led the way with 14 homers, and catcher Geovany Soto provided an unexpected boost with the bat. The Cubs went 10-2 from Sept. 12-23, and in a two-game stretch at home against Pittsburgh, Soriano and Ramirez combined to hit six home runs and 14 RBIs. After being 2-12 in one-run games in April and May, the Cubs went 21-10 in one-run contests the rest of the way. They were 13-21 against left-handed pitching heading into September, but went 6-3 against southpaws the final month of the season, and had a season-high 3 1/2-game lead in the division on Sept. 23. Zambrano broke his winless streak, and Marmol put together a stretch of 23 1/3 innings without giving up a run, dating back to August.
Marc Zarefsky is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.