Siberian Baseball

Sunday, May 11, 2008

This seems... different

Before I get started here, I'll try and head off some outcry in the comments section right off the bat. Yes, I am aware that it's only mid-May and that the Cubs' June Swoon is named that because it occurs in June.

I am also (painfully) aware that the Cubs are a star-crossed franchise that is currently in its 100th year without a championship, despite Hall of Fame players and more than one opportunity to snap that drought.

I am also aware that the Cubs are still one game behind St. Louis as of this evening.

That said, something seems different this year.

Not enough to have me furiously squirreling away nickels and dimes to afford World Series tickets that would reach into the thousands of dollars, but enough to take notice on a day when I'd otherwise only remember a sign like, "I love your mom" in the stands.

After another come from behind victory today, the Cubs are winning the games they should, which hasn't always been the case. They are also scoring runs in bunches and seeing timely hitting from their bench. After a series of frustrating seasons - and nothing short of a total collapse last October - the Cubs are playing decent baseball into May, which is the first check box on any Chicago fan's list as they try and decide if this year might be the year.

Aside from the obvious boxes like, "Avoid serious injuries to major stars" and "Pitchers report without incident, injury or mental breakdowns in the offseason," the season is peppered with all sorts of little milestones that even casual fans have learned to recognize in order to take a team's temperature as the year progresses.

Early in the season the team won back-to-back extra innings games against the Pirates on April 7 and 9. While I was happy with the ultimate results, it was bothersome for two major reasons - first, it was the Pirates, a team that the Cubs lineup should be able to dispatch in nine innings, if not fewer and second, because racking up extra inning games that early in the season is never a good thing.

It's a long season and it worries me when a team isn't able to take care of business efficiently and is forced to play long games, taxing the bullpen and generally gumming up the works. While it can be a hallmark of a scrappy team, it seems that the teams that are headed to the postseason don't usually need such heroics.

That's where this team is looking different from the most recent vintages of Cubs baseball - I've now seen the team score runs in bunches twice in person and even when the team is trailing like today, the games aren't seeming so far out of reach in those situations.

Through today, the Cubs are 4-2 in extra innings games - the four wins have come against the Pirates, Rockies and Phillies, the two losses against the Brewers on Opening Day and against the Cardinals - and have managed to keep those games to a minimum.

More importantly, the Cubs have yet to lose more than two games in a row (which won't last forever, but is nice for a month and a half of work) and are 9-4 in games decided by five or more runs, including yesterday against Arizona.

While the team is 4-3 in one-run games, they are seeing run support in most games, only being shut out twice in 37 games.

That's a lot of numbers being thrown about for a second-place team, but most of it should be encouraging news for fans of a franchise that started the season 0-14 in 1997. In all honesty, no one wins the pennant in April and May, but you can certainly lose it during those two months.

Anyone in their right mind should be viewing the Cubs' early season success with cautious optimism, but at least there's reason for that optimism. The team is playing to its strengths as an offensive ballclub, staying out of trouble with the bottom of their rotation and making the most of their bullpen as Kerry Wood tries work through the growing pains of transitioning to a closer role.

For a team that is above average, but isn't stacked like Boston, that's a fine place to start. Whether it holds up through a long summer remains to be seen, but with a month and a half of baseball behind us, my checklist is still largely intact.

Primarily, I'm pleased that the first step has been accomplished without tripping.

Don't blow it early? Check.

(Image from WGN TV)



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