By Anthony Zilis
The acquisition of Matt Holliday seems to make the St. Louis Cardinals the popular favorites in the National League Central.
But after an extremely disappointing first half, where seemingly everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Cubs, they find themselves in first place today, half a game ahead of St. Louis.
And while it seems that Cubs general manager Jim Hendry is tied up by the pending sale of the team as the trading deadline approaches, the Cubs have managed to improve without any major trades.
Aramis Ramirez is showing resemblance to his pre-injury form, (the third baseman is 9-for-16 in his last four games after struggling since coming back from a shoulder injury) which is equal to adding a frontline player like Holliday. Alfonso Soriano could have easily been replaced by an outfielder from the Tennessee Smokies in May and June without a dip in production, but he’s now swinging a hot bat. The left fielder raised his average 28 points in the last 15 games.
The Cubs also hope Rich Harden’s post All-Star break resurgence isn’t a mirage, as he’s allowed only two runs in his last three starts. His Sunday win over the Reds was his first at home since May 12 and his first during the day since April 21.
Couple these major additions with the solid pitching from rookies Randy Wells and Kevin Hart, who has had two solid starts filling in for Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly, and the Cubs have managed to scrape themselves back to the top of the division.
But this resurgence isn’t merely a coup for the Cubs – it’s a must. In a year that should be labeled “World Series or bust,” the time is right for a long-awaited championship. Hendry has immobilized, if not handcuffed, this franchise for a few years by throwing around huge amounts of money to players like Soriano, Milton Bradley, Kosuke Fukudome, Ryan Dempster, and Carlos Zambrano.
So while it would be nice to trade for a Jake Peavy or a Roy Halladay, the Cubs are going to have to win with what they have. Their improvements have had to come internally and that looks like the case.
Look next for a comeback by Milton Bradley, who has struggled mightily from the left side of the plate. If you remember, one reason Hendry insisted on signing the switch-hitting right fielder was to make his lineup more left-handed. Piniella has personally worked with Bradley over the last several days, so look for him to return to his 2008 form, when he was third in the American League in batting average.
If everything comes together for the Cubs like it has the last few weeks, look for all of the criticism from what was looking like a possible lost season to be washed away.
A fan base that has long been frustrated has tasted success over the last few years, and a World Series victory is expected.
If they can’t win a championship, look for heads to roll as new ownership comes in.
Think the Cardinals acquisition of Holliday puts them above the Cubs? Do the Cubs have what it takes to win in the playoffs if they get there? Does Jim Hendry have a job with the Cubs if they don’t win the World Series?