Braves 0 @ Cubs 1

Box Score / Highlights / Condensed Game

The Cubs and Braves staged an old fashioned pitcher’s duel Wednesday between Paul Maholm and Tim Hudson.  Neither offense could accomplish much of anything, as the hurlers mowed through the lineups.  In the end it was Bryan LaHair’s sharp grounder past the shortstop that decided the game, and gave the Cubs their second consecutive series victory and closed out a 4-2 homestand.

Here’s some key points that stand out from the game and the homestand:

  • Paul Maholm has really turned his game around since his first two starts of the season.  In his four starts since then–all wins, by the way–he’s been the pitcher many of us hoped he could be.  He’s not dominant or overpowering–it’s more subtle than that.  He simply hasn’t given opposing hitters anything to work with.  Look at the play-by-play from Wednesday’s game and you’ll see what I mean.  It’s all groundouts and pop flys, and on the rare occasion he did let a runner on, he was able to buckle down and get the next batter out.  It’s not that he’s got superhuman talent–he doesn’t.  He’s just über-consistent, and when was the last time you could say that as a positive about a Cub pitcher?
  • One other note about Maholm–all his wins have come after losses for the Cubs.  His first win came at the end of that six-game losing streak in mid-April.  Since then he’s consistently kept the Cubs in position to win, each time after a loss.  Now maybe that’s just the result of following Chris Volstad in the rotation?  Either way, since Maholm got his act together on the mound, the Cubs are 10-7.
  • Bryan LaHair continues to add to his legend.  He recorded the only RBI in Wednesday’s game, with a sharp single that ate up Braves’ shortstop Jack Wilson.  With two outs and David DeJesus on third, LaHair represented the Cubs’ best scoring chance of the day, and he delivered.  Listening to the game in my office, it seemed inevitable that he would get a hit–even Pat and Keith sounded confident that he’d find a way to bring DeJesus home.  Coming into the season, I hoped LaHair would be good, or at least good enough.  I had no idea he’d be this great.
  • The only other legitimate scoring chance the Cubs had came in the fourth inning, when Starlin Castro tripled off the wall in right field.  The ball tailed toward what would be foul territory in any other ballpark, but landed fair before skipping off the wall and back to the ivy past a sliding Jason Heyward.  Castro was rounding second as Heyward got to the ball, and third base coach Pat Listach waved him on to home for the potential inside-the-park homer.  It took two near-perfect throws to get him, and Dan Uggla’s relay to home was actually a bit off the mark in a way that benefited the Braves.  Instead of setting up to make the tag at home, David Ross had to make the catch a couple feet up the baseline, cutting off any potential slide or move that Castro could make to avoid the tag.  It’s never good to be thrown out at the plate, but it follows with the Cubs’ aggressive baserunning approach, and it looked like Castro had a good shot.  If he waits at third maybe LaHair knocks him in like he would later with DeJesus–who knows?
  • And I’m not kidding when I say those were the only two scoring chances–the Cubs won the game with only 26 plate appearances.  The minimum for a win is 25.
  • Just want to say a quick word about our starting pitchers–who thought they would be the strength of the team?  Dempster’s working hard to win himself that next contract.  Matt Garza is Matt Garza.  Paul Maholm is exceeding everyone’s humble expectations.  And even Jeff Samardzija has made the move to starting pirate pitcher without too many bumps.  Only Chris Volstad has been a consistent disappointment, and his problems are usually localized to one bad inning.  Even Randy Wells and Travis Wood have looked serviceable in their limited work.  Nobody, NOBODY saw it coming, but our starting pitchers and the emergence of a (kind of) offensive identity have made this team (dare I say it?) competitive!  I mean, we just took four out of six games against two of the best teams in baseball–who saw that coming?  I did not expect to be this happy with this team… well, ever.
  • One other note about Samardzija–Monday night I finally saw a sign that makes me think maybe he really can be a quality starting pitcher.  No, it wasn’t the seven innings of 1-run baseball, or the seven strikeouts he peppered throughout the night.  It was in the top of the seventh, when he put a fastball between Jason Heyward’s shoulder blades.  Reed Johnson was hit in the bottom of the second, and Samardzija wasn’t content to let it go unpunished.  In fact, hitting Heyward drew warnings for both dugouts, and Braves manager Freddie Gonzalez got an early shower in the bottom of the inning, after the Braves hit DeJesus.  The point is I’m a big fan of pitchers who protect their hitters, and sadly the Cubs haven’t always had guys willing to do that.  If Samardzija is going to be that kind of starter, he might be able to win over one of his biggest critics.  (But I’ll still occasionally link this picture.)
  • That’s probably all the gushing I can muster for now, and certainly more than you want to read.  Here’s a question for you though (mainly so I get to use Joe’s nifty You Make the Call image): In light of the Cubs recent upswing, where would you put the adjusted ceiling for this team?  Are your expectations raised, or do you think the last couple weeks have been a blip?  For me, I think this is a competitive Cubs team, one that could (and maybe should) post a .500-ish record.  That might not put us in position to land the fifth playoff spot, but it would mean we’re playing meaningful games into the last few weeks of the season.  And I’ll take that, bigtime.
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