Keys for the Stretch Run

Lou Piniella stated before Saturday’s game that his crew is not in the stretch run of the season yet, but are in more of a jog at this point. While it is not September 1st, the 2007 season is coming down the back stretch, the Cubs have 33 games left, 17 at home and 16 on the road. To use an old cliche, the Cubs control their own destiny, “Play winning baseball and you are in.” The Cubs sit a game and a half ahead of the second place Milwaukee Brewers, two ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals and six and a half ahead of a late entry to the race, the Cincinnati Reds. The Cubs are the only team with a record above .500 in a division that has been labeled the weakest in baseball, aptly nicknamed “Comedy Central”. While most of the experts feel the Cubs will end up winning the division and squeak into the playoffs, the question now is how?

Here are a few things that must happen for the Cubs to be playing ball in October….

The team that comes out on top in the Central should win between 84-87 games, not the best winning percentage but one over .500 nonetheless, and last year’s 83-win World Champions can be used as a model….anything can happen in a short series when a team gets hot. Of the Cubs’ 33 remaining games, here is the breakdown of the games left and the Cubs record versus that team on the season:

  • The Brewers – 3 games – 7-5 vs. the Brewers
  • The Astros – 6 games – 4-5 vs. the Astros
  • The Dodgers – 4 games – 1-2 vs. the Dodgers
  • The Pirates – 6 games – 4-5 vs. the Pirates
  • The Cardinals – 5 games – 7-4 vs. the Cardinals
  • The Reds – 6 games – 5-7 vs. the Reds
  • The Marlins – 3 games – 0-3 vs. the Marlins

The only two teams that currently have a record at or above .500 are the Brewers and the Dodgers, with the Cardinals just 1 game below the .500 mark. The Cubs are 33-31 at Wrigley and 33-32 on the road and do not play well in Houston or Cincinnati but all records aside it should take a record of 21-12 the rest of the way to win the title.

The Big Keys

  • Carlos Zambrano – The Cubs go the way Zambrano goes and a team must have their ace down the stretch. He has been horrible of late and must turn his season around for a third time. Zambrano is 0-3 with a 7.04 ERA in his last 4 starts and has not posted a win since July 29th. Zambrano has walked 16 and stuck out only 15 in his last 23 innings while surrendering 18 runs on 29 hits. Not much of a staff ace after being named the best pitcher in the National League in July. Zambrano figures to have at least 6 starts left and if he can post a 5-1 record, he will be starting Game One of the NLDS.
  • Derrek Lee – Lee’s struggles have been well documented. He is hitting but not on the road (.261/.353/.376) and not in key situations. Although his season average is above .300, Lee is hitting .261 in August with a .352 OBP and a .457 SLG with 4 home runs and 11 RBI’s in 92 at bats. Lee can carry a club when he is healthy and hot, see the beginning of the 2005 season, and he must start hitting the ball to all fields again. Teams are pitching him on the outside part of the plate, he is not driving those pitches to right field, he is just fouling them off. Lee must take the outside away once again and finish the season the way he started it. The return of his home run swing would be great but he has only 8 doubles since the All-Star Break, he hit 26 in the first half, 14 in April alone. Lee hitting doubles down the stretch would be just as valuable as him hitting the long ball.
  • Alfonso Soriano – Apparently “team” is spelled “S-o-r-i-a-n-o” because the Cubs forgot how to win ballgames when he was on the DL. The Cubs posted an 8-11 record with Soriano on the shelf and while he might not be the prototypical leadoff hitter, he provides results. Soriano is a game changer and just his presence at the top of the lineup will have an effect on how teams pitch the bottom third of the order down the stretch. Lou Piniella has stated that Soriano will hit in the leadoff spot when he returns on Tuesday and Ryan Theriot will move down and hit in the 2-hole, now it is up to the Riot to treat that spot the way he has the leadoff spot in Soriano’s absence. Theriot has done a very good job leading off and with Soriano’s habit of swinging and missing a lot, Theriot will get those same opportunities, just with 1-out. If Soriano can stay healthy and find his stroke at Wrigley (.251/.286/.369 with 5 home runs and 14 RBI’s at home, .346/.387/.631 with 13 home runs and 28 RBI’s on the road), the Cubs offense will be fine.
  • The Back End of the Rotation – Pitching and defense win ballgames, there goes another cliche, but a very true one at that. While Zambrano and Ted Lilly should return to form, what Lou Piniella can get out of Rich Hill and Sean Marshall for the rest of the season is very important. Jason Marquis figures into this equation as well but with “the adventure” no one can predict how he will pitch from inning to inning, much less start to start. But Hill and Marshall have shown how good they are capable of being, it is up to them to take it to the next level. Sean Gallagher will figure to get at least one spot start once the rosters expand on Saturday, so his ability to give Piniella a solid 4-5 innings out of the gate will be crucial to say the least.
  • Cliff Floyd – The Cubs need a healthy Cliff Floyd down the stretch driving the ball and providing some protection for Aramis Ramirez. If Floyd can get hot, Ramirez will see a lot more pitches he can handle and drive out of the ballpark. Floyd has shown the ability in the past to win games single-handedly and Lou Piniella will need offensive production from the right field position. Floyd doing his part against righties and Craig Monroe providing some pop against lefties will make a huge difference.
  • Jacque Jones – Jones has been more than a plus in the second half, especially over the past month and must continue to play the way he has. Jones will have a lot of ground to cover in center down the stretch with Floyd in right and a less than a 100% Soriano in left, how he plays over the next 33 games will have a big impact on how the Cubs finish the season. If Jones slumps, the Cubs will be in trouble.
  • Patience at the Plate – The entire Cubs team is back to swinging at everything they see. Contrary to popular belief walks are good….nothing bad comes from taking a walk, clogging the bases and making a pitcher work. The Cubs will continue to see solid starting pitching as the season comes to an end, but they will also face pitchers that have thrown a lot of innings. Making a pitcher work for the out will pay dividends as the game goes a long, especially when facing the Astros, Pirates and Reds.
  • The Call-Ups – On Saturday all teams can expand their roster and while Piniella has stated he will only call up players he feels can help, whoever gets the call must contribute. If one or two of the “kids” could give the club a lift down the stretch and in turn allow Piniella to give a couple of his vets a day off, that would be a huge lift to a club in need of one. The Cubs start of stretch of 24 games in 23 days on Tuesday and have only two off days for the rest of the season, Piniella will need to give players time to rest and a well-timed hot streak from an unexpected source could steal a couple of wins.

Other Keys

  • Carlos Marmol – Senor Nasty must stay healthy, effective and continue to contribute as games and situations become more and more important.
  • Jason Kendall – While Kendall cannot throw out any would-be base stealers, his knack to take pitches and provide the Cubs with a good bat behind the plate has been more than a plus.
  • Henry Blanco – Return to catching Carlos Zambrano. The runs a more offensive catcher, like Kendall, may drive in is irrelevant if Zambrano can return to his from June and July. Hank White cannot just spell Kendall from time to time, he has to catch every 5th game.
  • Ryan Dempster – Throw strikes, strikes and more strikes.
  • Mark DeRosa – DeRosa must keep all three of his gloves well oiled and in the dugout. DeRosa gives Piniella valuable versatility and a good bat, with a lot of patience. If DeRosa can continue being Piniella’s super-utilityman that will give players like Ramirez and Soriano time off down the stretch.

Well, there you have it, a few keys for the Cubs in the final 5 weeks of the season. What do you feel are the keys to the Cubs making the post-season? How many wins do you feel it will take? What record will the Cubs finish with?

Let’s have a little fun on this off day and maybe, just maybe we will all get to see the ivy turn color once again this year.

Quote of the Day

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow." - Albert Einstein