Two nights ago, the Chicago Cubs had lost eight of nine games. They were still in first place, but they were producing flashbacks of catastrophes past in the minds of their most ardent admirers.
Not to worry. Ted Lilly on Wednesday night and then Rich Harden on Thursday night produced high-quality starting performances, and the Cubs beat the Cardinals twice. The potential swoon had been halted, the situation had been stabilized and the Cubs were 5 1/2 games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central.
Thursday night was a beauty for the Cubs, a 3-2 victory, a gem of a September game. It required outstanding eighth-inning outfield plays -- from Alfonso Soriano, diving in left, and Kosuke Fukudome, leaping against the wall in right. And it required closer Kerry Wood to end the game by retiring Albert Pujols with the potential tying and winning runs on base.
But the whole thing was set in motion by Harden's performance, his first start since Aug 29. Because of his history of arm problems, the Cubs gave him a breather. Those arm problems are part of Harden's pitching history, but so is the fact that when he can pitch, he is very good. Harden has just 99 career Major League starts, but in 42 of those he has allowed one run or less. He hasn't slumped with the Cubs. In 10 starts with Chicago, he is 5-1 with a 1.65 earned run average.
Coming back from his brief layoff, Harden focused on location. He was not the dominant strikeout pitcher with velocity in the upper 90s, but he was effective and efficient, shutting out the Cardinals for five innings, getting touched for two runs in the sixth. His stuff is so good, that he does not have to exert maximum effort to win.
"I'm better off trying to take something off and locate it," Harden said. "If I need something extra, I've still got it."
Manager Lou Piniella cautioned that there was still the question of how well Harden would bounce back from this work. But the early returns were comforting for the Cubs.
"Harden was fine," Piniella said. "We didn't overuse him, so he should be fine, a little sharper for his next start. You pitch six innings, give up two runs, not bad. We were hoping for seven [innings], but we got six and we're satisfied."
So two nights after a frustrated Piniella had said that his team was playing like it was "waiting to get beat," the managerial view of the Cubs was much more charitable.
"The plays that we made, that's winning baseball there," Piniella said.
|"I was trying just to get these guys riled up a little bit. I tried the other approach with a nice little meeting and I think I put them to sleep."|
|-- Cubs manager Lou Piniella|
All of this renewed optimism and confidence did not mean that the Cubs' immediate future would be simple and uncomplicated. The imminent arrival of Hurricane Ike on the Texas Gulf Coast meant that their Friday and Saturday games against the Houston Astros were postponed. The tentative plan now calls for a day-night doubleheader on Sunday and a single game on Monday, which was previously an off-day for both the Cubs and Astros.
It is possible that these games might have to be played at a neutral site, although the general hope is that they can still be played in Houston.
As Cubs player representative Ryan Dempster put it: "That's the best-case scenario because it means that the damage is minimal."
Exactly. In the absence of minimal damage, and the possibility of Houston airports being closed for some length of time, the Cubs would have difficulty getting there, and the Astros would have difficulty leaving.
These issues, of course, pale in comparison to the threat of death and devastation that this storm brings. People who were asking Piniella before the game if the hurricane situation would be a "distraction" to his team may not have had their priorities completely in order. The hurricane is not a "distraction" for the Cubs, because Ike and its deadly possibilities are not headed toward Chicago.
They will be inconvenienced, perhaps, but they will survive. "We're all big boys here," as Dempster put it.
"I hope that the people of the Texas Gulf Coast don't suffer much," said Piniella, without being asked. You were happy that, in the midst of the pennant race, the manager had the larger, human perspective in mind.
A decision on the disposition of these postponed games will be reached in consultation among officials of the Cubs, the Astros and the Commissioner of Baseball, Bud Selig.
"As always, the Commissioner will act in the best interests of the game and of both clubs," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said.
For the last two games, the Chicago starting pitchers acted squarely in the best interests of the Cubs. Throw in some sparkling defensive plays, timely hitting and the relief pitchers getting the necessary big outs, and a temporary stretch of gloom and doom had been replaced by the Cubs being back on track for a division title, and beyond that, the ultimate possibilities of the postseason.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.