CHICAGO – Every lucky soul wearing a Chicago Cubs uniform these days agrees that the transformation happened sometime in the first 16 days of June. They morphed from a team with more follies than Sondheim to a lean, mean – OK, really mean – winning machine.
When, exactly, did it occur? Well, here is where every lucky soul wearing a Chicago Cubs uniform – and we say it twice just to point out the incongruity of such a statement – cannot agree. This is no exaggeration. A survey of the Cubs' clubhouse, domain of the hottest team in the National League over the last seven weeks, revealed no less than seven reasons the Cubs have crept to within 3½ games of the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and two games of the wild-card-leading San Diego Padres.
And while all evoke a classic causation-vs.-correlation debate, they provide a rich narrative for the Cubs' wacky debut season under manager Lou Piniella, the guy who may well have kick-started, literally, this galaxy-shaking idea that the Cubs are good enough to …
(Incongruity obviously knows its bounds – and 99 years of history.)
"The biggest thing to me is when Lou got kicked out of the game," said outfielder Alfonso Soriano, whose story begins with the events of June 2. The previous day, Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano had blackened catcher Michael Barrett's eye in a fight that spilled from the dugout up the long, dank tunnel beneath Wrigley Field and into the clubhouse. Chicago lost its fifth game in a row. The next day, Piniella waited for the right moment to unleash a reservoir of rage that had built for two months, and it exploded when Angel Pagan was called out (rightfully so) on an attempt to steal third base.
Piniella got booted, but not before he kicked dirt on umpire Mark Wegner, kicked his cap like Robbie Gould and kicked away any notion that he would watch idly as the Cubs wasted the $300 million they spent on free-agent reinforcements this offseason.
"He was fighting for us," Soriano said. "And everybody – especially me – was thinking that's the kind of manager we want. So I put even more energy toward winning. I needed to play better."
Utility player Mark DeRosa's story starts that day too, only with Soriano. The Cubs lavished Soriano with the mother of all offseason contracts, $136 million over eight years, and he spent the season's first two months looking every bit as bad as his brother-in-overpayment, Barry Zito.
On the day of Piniella's ejection, Soriano hit a home run in the fifth inning. The next day, he hit another. And the day after, one more. Then, three days later, Soriano crushed three in one game. By the end of June, he had hit 11 homers, raised his on-base-plus-slugging more than 110 points and catalyzed an offense that sleepwalked through the season's first eight weeks.
"Alfonso Soriano became the pulse of our team," said DeRosa, part of the Cubs' free-agent haul. "He's a charismatic ballplayer. He's got the handshakes with everybody. He's just got that way about him. And he scuffled in April. When the pulse of your team is faint, it has a trickle-down effect. Not to put it on him, but his resurgence back to greatness helped us turn the corner."
Words struggle to accurately describe the Cubs in April and May. Calling them awful is an insult to all things awful. Calling them embarrassing does not begin to describe the ways they booted games with T-ball defense. Calling them pitiful sounds as close as one can get: truly worthy of pity.
"It was draining," DeRosa said. "I remember mid-May, it felt like we were close to the All-Star break because every day was so tough to deal with. A lot of it had to do was getting to know Lou's style, getting to know the personnel, everyone trusting each other and pulling in the same direction. We needed to figure out our roles and accept them."
The most culpable culprit might have been the bullpen, which went 0-7 in April and 4-13 through May. Since June 1, the day of the Zambrano-Barrett fight, the Cubs' bullpen has limited opponents to a .667 OPS.
Bob Howry and Will Ohman have lowered their earned-run averages by nearly a point, Carlos Marmol has been a late-inning revelation and the Cubs managed for more than a month without closer Ryan Dempster, the bullpen's lone reliable piece in April and May.
The fight seemed to catalyze something else too: Zambrano himself. Since then, he has baseball's second best ERA (1.43), second most strikeouts (66), third most innings pitched (63) and has allowed just 30 hits, which translates to a big-league-best .159 batting average against.
"When Z pitches," Cubs outfielder Jacque Jones said, "it can be like a day off."
By the time starter Ted Lilly was ejected in the first inning June 10 for throwing at Atlanta's Edgar Renteria, the Cubs' transformation was in full swing. That evening, Jones said, confirmed what they all knew: This amalgam of talent was becoming a team, with the pitchers sticking up for the hitters and vice versa.
Six days later, first baseman Derrek Lee's tete-a-tete with San Diego pitcher Chris Young disintegrated into an all-out brawl, continuing the Cubs' proclivity for belligerence. And when the Cubs traded Barrett to San Diego on June 21, the overhaul was complete. Though it took nearly three months, Piniella had found his team: Zambrano dealing, the bullpen locking down leads, Soriano mashing, Lee anchoring the lineup, former Louisiana State teammates and scrappers Mike Fontenot and Ryan Theriot up the middle, DeRosa in a super-utility role and a winning attitude pervading the clubhouse.
"There are no moments," Piniella insisted. "We made some changes. Our pitching got better. We started playing better defense. A couple of our big guys got hot at the same time. That's it.
"Why look back? It doesn't make any sense to. At the same time, you can't reverse or change anything. Let's just hope we play well the rest of the way." If it is all just correlation, like Piniella believes, it's filled with coincidence that can be found in the Cubs' names. April and May were personified by Ohman – oh, man – June and July have been those of Theriot – quite the riot – and their whole season has been Jekyll and Hyde – or Angel and Pagan, if you prefer.
April and May are gone, lost to the wind that on good days swirls from Clark and Addison toward Sheffield and Waveland, pushing balls long and far. It's on days like these that Soriano gets most excited. He pulls on the tights he wears underneath his uniform pants, crushes a ham-and-cheese sandwich and runs out to a huge cheer from the left-field bleachers.
"I came here for a lot of reasons," Soriano said, "but the biggest was to win a World Series."
Coming out of his mouth, amazingly, it doesn't sound that incongruous at all.