Down go Sheets and Sabathia, but can Cubs really win it all?

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Dave
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In Cubdom, fast-forwarding to October is taboo, like asking where Lindsay Lohan will be in three months. You live in the now, set local TV ratings records, outyell these new-at-winning Brewers fans in Miller Park and giggle aloud -- for now -- about some friggin' upstart without a playoff sniff since 1982 ever sabotaging your 100-year dream.

You watch the irrepressible Carlos Zambrano huff and puff Tuesday night and stoke his Cy Young Award campaign, though not without showing his Incredible Hulkness by breaking a bat over his thigh after botching a bunt attempt. You watch the Cubs treat Zambrano's friend, Ben Sheets, rather shabbily, roughing him up with six runs and 11 hits and knocking him out in the sixth inning a night after bruising CC Sabathia. You watch Ryan Braun repeatedly display why he's more likely to make blooper tapes than any Web Gems segment, diving feebly for a Kosuke Fukudome liner that led to two Cubs runs during a five-run sixth.

And you enjoy all of this immensely. Because in your cursed and tangled world, prosperity rarely happens.

"They just piled up on us," said Ned Yost, the Milwaukee manager, after the Cubs' 7-1 victory.

You won't believe what he said next. "At the end, (Sheets) started to wear out," Yost offered. "Where this heat and humidity came from, I have no idea, because it wasn't there during (batting practice)."

Huh? Zambrano, notorious for heat cramps and drinking too much Red Bull, delivered 118 pitches in a scoreless, eight-inning masterpiece -- and didn't wilt a bit. Why Sheets? Isn't he from Louisiana? "The heat didn't get to me. They got to me," he corrected. "They put the ball in play and put the pressure on us. They did a nice job offensively and pitched really well."

Yet as the Cubs were welcoming the Brewers to the real life of serious contention, I couldn't help but notice that baseball's epicenter had shifted away from the Interstate 94 axis. If they have hopes of finally winning the World Series, the question now becomes whether they or any other club has the goods this autumn to beat the Angels of Los Angeles, Anaheim and, if I'm reading this properly, the United States of America. Think the Cubs are having a terrific couple of nights in Wisconsin, with back-to-back victories over top pitchers that pushed their recently shaky divisional lead to three games? Consider the Angels, who, in a six-hour swoop Tuesday, acquired an over-th e-top piece in slugger Mark Teixeira and then saw pitching ace John Lackey come within two outs of no-hitting the Red Sox at Fenway Park. I realize stuff can happen to paper champions, such as injuries, between the dog days of summer and the tense nights of the playoffs. But it's fair to ask, as the season defines itself, a loaded question about the Cubs.

Do they have enough to win it all?

They should have enough to win the National League Central. They may have enough to win the NL pennant. But doesn't Jim Hendry, who has done a fine job so far in assembling the most legitimate Cubs team in eons, need another piece or two before the Thursday trade deadline to keep up with the sport's elite? The Angels and their proactive owner, Arte Moreno, are going for the gusto in acquiring Teixeira, who will team with Vlad Guerrero to provide what they lacked: a power duo to rival David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. Otherwise, what don't they have? Mike Scioscia is the sharpest manager in the game. Their pitching rotation is so deep and talented that our old pal, Jon Garland, gets lost in the mix. Frankie (K-Rod) Rodriguez, the closer in a typically good bullpen, is trying to break Bobby Thigpen's record for saves in a season. They catch the ball. They steal bases. They play smart, efficient ball that doesn't require heavy lifting by one man as much as contributions by all. They won it all six years ago and could have three years ago, instead of the White Sox, if they weren't so banged up.

Now, they also have Teixeira. "They have the best team in baseball," he said as he fled Atlanta. "I'm not going to make them any different, other than just hopefully add a few more runs. They have all the pitching they need, they have great defense."

The Cubs? To be fair, they've added pieces along the way in Rich Harden and Jim Edmonds. But isn't their Series fantasy dependent on the health of Alfonso Soriano, Kerry Wood and Harden? Already, Wood is down. We've seen Soriano go down often. And Harden's pitch counts are being babied, rightfully so. To be safe, I'd like to see another reliever, even another bat, and I'd like to see the commotion settle down for Jeff Samardzija. Hendry says he could be "a rock star" someday with his 98 mph heaters and flowing locks, and I'd don't doubt it -- someday. But entering in the ninth after Zambrano's latest superb start, the kid struggled a bit, allowing a walk and a crushed double and the only Milwaukee run in a 7-1 victory. As rookie relievers go, a guy can sink from Bono to Vanilla Ice in one night.

I look at the Cubs and still see potential issues. I look at the Angels and see none, which tells me that Hendry and team boss Crane Kenney need to counter. "There's very little room to put someone in, in my opinion, if you're healthy," Hendry told reporters the other day. "I would think that for t he most part, if we did something, it would be a reaction to a health issue more than feeling our people weren't capable of doing their job." With Wood still stuck in hand blister hell, which could linger more than anyone wants to admit, why not add another relief arm? The fans have lost faith in Bob Howry, turning him into a talk-show pariah. Carlos Marmol continues to learn the closer's role and would have nowhere near the October impact of, say, K-Rod. And Samardzija? He's raw at the relief game -- no career saves in the minor leagues, only one in college -- and wouldn't create half the frenzy if he had attended Beloit College instead of Notre Dame. Hendry and Lou Piniella have been watching too many "Major League" reruns, because they're trying to reinvent Ricky (Wild Thing) Vaughn. "He's got the poise and the stuff to go with it," Piniella said. "We've been looking for one more good arm in the bullpen, and I think we've found it."

As long as that's all it is -- one good arm -- I'm fine with it. But please don't paint him as a savior. Go get yourself a proven reliever who can close, such as Baltimore's George Sherrill, who has 30 saves this season. That way, you also keep him away from the Brewers and Cardinals. I'd like a versatile hitter who can play in the outfield, too, in case Fukudome's fatigue grows into a major problem and/or Soriano gets hurt again.

All in all, this has been a smooth, enjoyable joyride so far for Cubdom. That is, when you aren't attending a "Sesame Street" party for a two-year-old girl, as three male Cubs fans did in McHenry County, and allegedly assault a Sox fan so brutally that the poor guy lost an eye. Somehow, I don't think they were debating whether Elmo is cooler than the Cookie Monster, though Big Bird is much more handsome than Hawk Harrelson.

The Brewers look pretty ugly themselves. "We still have a good team, regardless of what happened," Sheets said. "It's still July. Nobody's winning a Central pennant right now, or whatever you call it."

To maintain the glow, the Cubs must do something they've never done. They must envision October, a World Series night against the Angels, and make sure they acquire the answers by Thursday. Can you do that, Jim Hendry? History requires big thoughts.

http://www.suntimes.com/sports/1081231, ... 08.article


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