Morning Juice: Dysfunctional Cubs slide right into first place

This and every weekday a.m. during baseball season, let's rise and shine together to recap the most recent diamond doings. Roll Call starts at Wrigley Field, home of the first-place Chicago Cubs, who haven't been able to say that in more than three months.

Game of the Day

Cubs 5, Reds 2

Team of density: So much has gone wrong for the two-time defending NL Central champs so far, it's no wonder they have been flailing about in the middle of the standings for most of the season. Injuries, inconsistency, instability and ineffectiveness have plagued them at every spot on the field, except for shortstop. Ryan Theriot(notes), you're doing a heckuva job!

And yet, a mini run coinciding with a mini slide by the Cardinals has put the Cubs in first for the first time since April 21.

"It's only a half-game, but we're on top," manager Lou Piniella said.

Rich Harden(notes) was awful in the first half, but has gotten a grip since the All-Star break (just in time with Ted Lilly(notes) going on the disabled list). He came into Sunday with ERAs over 7.00 at home and in day games, a double whammy considering the Cubs play 81 times at Wrigley Field. So, after he gave up a first-inning home run to Joey Votto(notes), the Cubs almost covered Harden's head with a paper bag to fool him into thinking it's night.

But the Votto deep would be the only baserunner Harden allowed over six innings.

"The big thing for me was using my legs and being efficient throwing the ball," said Harden, who struck out eight. "The first half, I wasn't doing that."

The Cubs also didn't get many breaks in the first half. But they got one in this game, up 3-1 with one out in the eighth. A short fly ball to center should have scored a run, but Kosuke Fukudome(notes) threw out Edwin Encarnacion(notes) at the plate (VIDEO).

"Out" should be in quotes. It was one of the worst calls Laz Diaz will ever make, but it also was awful baserunning by Encarnacion, who would have been even safer had he just put his head down and run instead of looking back the whole way. Dumbuhhh.

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Feelin' Rundown (also rejected for Roy Halladay(notes)):

Orioles 6, Red Sox 2: The John Smoltz(notes) Experience continues to yield poor results. His record is 1-4, his ERA is 7.04, his WHIP is 1.53, batters are hitting .328 and slugging .527 against him, he's pitched at least six innings only once and he keeps trying to iron teammates shirts while they're wearing them.

But it's not all bad. He's hitting 92-93 mph on radar gun, he's throwing a lot of strikes (five walks in 30 2/3 innings) and is striking out batters a little above his career pace. So, his arm is sound, even at 42 years old.

It sounds like he's just getting too much of the plate. He knows what he's doing, he just can't make the ball go there — yet. There's every reason to believe that he will. If the results aren't good enough soon enough, he surely would make a great one-inning guy. The Red Sox aren't hurting in the bullpen, but Smoltz would be a click better than Delcarmen, Ramirez or Saito from the right side in the eighth inning.

Marlins 8, Dodgers 6: Jeff Weaver(notes) throws one up and in to Hanley Ramirez(notes), but it wasn't close enough, so the next one hits him (VIDEO). Umpire Bob Davidson warns both benches, which puts the Fish at a disadvantage and, sure enough, Burke Badenhop(notes) gets tossed after drilling Orlando Hudson(notes) in the rumpus later on. Meanwhile, Weaver's record is clean. Is it right?

For all of the whining Hanley does about getting hit, it's only happened five times this year. He ain't no Don Baylor.

White Sox 5, Tigers 1: Can there be a "must-win" game in July? Seems hard to back up with facts considering there are 60 games remaining in the season, but I say "maybe." The Tigers were one victory from a four-game sweep and a four-game lead over the Sox in AL Central, until Clayton Richard(notes) said, "Not on my watch!"

It's kind of scary how well Richard has pitched his past two starts, first against the Rays. He was painting the corners at 96 mph sometimes against the Tigers.

Home run Beckham.

Phillies 9, Cardinals 2: Joe Blanton's(notes) chin had a 1.21 ERA in July and the Phillies are 20-12 in his starts since he came over from the A's. The Cardinals are 1-2 since clinching a World Series berth by trading for Matt Holliday(notes). In order to doubly solidify the commissioner's trophy, they need to find the Holliday of pitchers and put him in the rotation.

Yankees 7, Athletics 5: Dallas Braden(notes) graded his outing like a nasty Broadway critic might review "Springtime for Hitler."

"Extremely poor," Braden said. "Embarrassing performance."

Later, he added some detail: "It's pretty much a blueprint on how to get your team to hate you," Braden said. "It was a total team effort to get us the lead and then I went out and gave it back. Then a total team effort to get us the lead back, then I went out and gave it away again."

Looks like somebody's sitting by himself on the fight out of NYC.

Meanwhile, everything is hunky and dory for the Yankees, who went 9-1 on their homestand.

Nationals 3, Padres 2 (10 inn.): Entering as a defensive replacement, Adrian Gonzalez(notes) keeps alive his run of 306 straight games, the longest active streak in the majors. Only 14 more years to Cal Ripken's record!

Blue Jays 5, Rays 1: No Roy Halladay trade yet.

Mets 8, Astros 3: After taking two of three in Houston, the 'Ropolitans feel good about themselves. However, with 10 guys on the disabled list, and at 10 1/2 games out of first, they'll still need a Mets-like collapse from the Phillies to win the division.

Braves 10, Brewers 2: Despite the best efforts of Jason Kendall(notes) (right), Atlanta takes the Hank Aaron Cup back to Georgia.

Rangers 7, Royals 2: Like a 6-foot-8 Mighty Mouse, here comes Dustin Nippert(notes) to save the day again. He filled in for Vicente Padilla(notes) on Wednesday (it turns out Padilla has Swine Flu) and he came to the rescue again Sunday after Kevin Millwood(notes) left with tightness in his left gluteus. A tight butt?

Set your watch to the Royals bullpen, which allowed all of the Rangers runs, like it does for every opponent.

Twins 10, Angels 2: Risking many diseases other than Swine Flu, Anthony Swarzak(notes) cornered the Rally Monkey, threw a blanket over it, and dropped it into a cage. "Anthony Swarzak." Sounds more like a lottery winner than a pitcher, but it'll do.

Justin Morneau(notes) now leads the AL in homers and RBIs. If he holds on and Mauer wins the batting title, the Twins will win the Triple Crown.

Rockies 4, Giants 2: Start the countdown for the Rockies, whose Magic Number to clinch the Wild Card is 63.

Indians 12, Mariners 2: Somebody break up the Mariners. And that somebody will be general manager Jack Zduriencik. Seattle should be selling at the trade deadline after the Tribe outscored the M's 31-6 during a three-game sweep. Someone check to see if the Space Needle is still standing.

D-backs 9, Pirates 0: Max Scherzer(notes) threw 109 pitches, 85 for strikes, 30 with room to spare.

Pirates outfielders lead the majors with 29 assists, which shows you how completely worthless some stats can be sometimes.

Virgil Vasquez(notes) is the first guy in the majors with the first name of "Virgil" since Virgil Trucks, who retired after the 1958 season.

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