CHICAGO – Alfonso Soriano admits he doesn't understand the Chicago Cubs' history because, as he put it, "I wasn't even born." And perhaps he doesn't comprehend the power of words, either, because the ones that came out of his mouth late last week carry quite the implication.
"If we play in October like we play now," Soriano said, "we'll win everything."
Surely the Cubs' three-game losing streak since he tempted the baseball gods – only Chicago's fourth such this season – had nothing to do with Soriano's proclamation.
Never mind that he's correct in his assessment. The Cubs are the best team in baseball and, barring injury or some other kind of collapse – and never … baaaahhhhhh … count that out – they will be favorites to win their first World Series in 100 years.
It's been more than 60 years since the Cubs entered the postseason as the team to beat. The last time was 1945. Phil Cavarretta hit .355 and won National League MVP. Andy Pafko drove in 110 runs. Four of their starters finished with ERAs of 2.68 or lower. And Hal Newhouser-led Detroit stifled them in Game 7 with a five-run first inning and prolonged what would become the greatest run of futility in American sports.
As much as it means to carry the top record in the game – as the Cubs did until Labor Day – it was as much for naught then, when two teams made the playoffs, as it is now, when the competition is among eight.
"You don't get brownie points for having the best record," first baseman Derrek Lee said. "You start over. And you'd better play well.
"The best record is nice, and it sounds good, but if we're lucky enough to get into the postseason, it makes no difference at all. Look at the wild-card teams that have won. And the Rockies last season. You've got to play well at the right time."
Which the Cubs did not do last season. Their bats turned to linguini. Their pitching imploded. Manager Lou Piniella made the bonehead decision of the year when he yanked ace Carlos Zambrano in Game 1 against the Arizona Diamondbacks after six innings with a 1-1 score.
Even though Arizona entered the NL Division Series with a better record, the Cubs had played so well in the latter two-thirds of the season, going 63-46, that they entered the postseason thinking World Series and exited reflecting on blown opportunities.
"We were surprised," Soriano said. "We were supposed to win against Arizona. But they played better than us."
Envisioning a similar meltdown is difficult. The Cubs' balance of hitting, starting pitching, relief pitching and fielding is unparalleled. They added a full season of catcher Geovany Soto, the runaway NL Rookie of the Year, and Japanese right fielder Kosuke Fukudome, who is trying to kick a month-long slump. Early in the year, GM Jim Hendry picked center fielders Reed Johnson and Jim Edmonds off the free-agent compost pile, and both have been spectacular. And then, after Milwaukee kinged itself with CC Sabathia, Hendry double-jumped his way into starter Rich Harden, who has been every bit as dynamic.
So, yeah, the Cubs, losing streak notwithstanding, are good. Any team with Mark DeRosa, he of the .867 on-base-plus-slugging, hitting regularly in the bottom third of the order qualifies. As does one with Ryan Dempster, a legitimate Cy Young candidate, as its No. 3 starter. And one with a bullpen that can throw any of three relief pitchers in the ninth inning – Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol or Jeff Samardzija – and know a lead will stay intact.
"If we don't get past the first round, we'll be one of the better teams ever to fail so badly," Edmonds said. "We don't want to be that.
"The only thing you worry about is if guys start getting caught reading their own press and lose the details. This is a pretty good team. The thing is, if you don't perform, it means nothing."
September will be a good test. Starting with a series at St. Louis, the Cubs play 13 of 19 on the road to finish the regular season, all against teams with records above .500. They're almost locks for the playoffs, yes, but they don't want to tempt fate and enter the postseason playing like they did last October.
They want to vanquish any curses and get rid of the whole 100-years nonsense and bring peace to generations of fans and, most of all, get fitted for rings. Over the weekend, someone asked Piniella whether he believed the Cubs were a team of destiny.
"I believe in good pitching and good defense and timely hitting," he said. "That's destiny."
Crash Davis he ain't. Though Piniella's point does resonate. Nothing's going to win the Cubs a World Series except the Cubs themselves. However good they look right now, it matters little.
Brownie points aren't redeemable anywhere in October.
Tampa Bay Rays: No Evan Longoria, no Carl Crawford, no Troy Percival, no letdown. Joe Maddon's ability to take this group, nearly 60 percent of whom were born in the '80s and almost none of whom have experience in playoff drives, and mold it into winners will earn him AL Manager of the Year – and deservedly so. In August, the Rays were fourth in baseball in runs scored and had an OPS 74 points higher than their season average. Not to be outdone, the Rays' pitching staff had a 3.74 ERA, fifth best in baseball and nearly a quarter-point better than their season average. And now they've got the best record in the game.
Milwaukee Brewers: At least before Ben Sheets' "very, very slight" groin injury, which, as we know with Sheets, could still be very, very bad. How serious it is affects the Brewers, sure, though it's not quite the enormous loss it would have been a month ago. Because with the rest of the Brewers' staff pitching so well – Dave Bush (2.12 ERA) and Jeff Suppan (3.00) were especially good in September – losing Sheets could be mitigated. For now.
Three down (plus bonus one)
Ned Yost: Perhaps he should focus his energy on getting to the postseason instead of worrying about a no-hitter. Yes, it's natural for a manager to complain when he feels one of his players was done wrong, and video shows that Sabathia was. Still, it didn't help shake Yost's reputation as a man of extremes: overreacting to this, underreacting to the Prince Fielder-Manny Parra fight, and plenty more instances on both sides.
NL West: Speaking of, is there a glue factory for baseball teams? Or, better yet, divisions?
Syracuse football: Please fire Greg Robinson.
Special Dustin Pedroia edition.
Call him whatever you may. Nuisance. Pest. Gnat. He almost got benched for Alex Cora last year. Now, the 25-year-old – whose tomahawk swing looks like a kid's and receding hairline resembles a 40-something's – is putting together one of the all-time great seasons for a second baseman.
Certainly his back-to-back 4-for-4 games brought his great numbers to light. Only 10 other players have gone 4 for 4 in consecutive games since 1956, according to Baseball-Reference.com's tremendous Play Index.
Even better, Pedroia has already adjoined himself with a fairly elite group of second basemen by hitting 40 doubles, 15 home runs and stealing 15 bases. He's the youngest of the group by nearly two years.
Add in a minimum .325 batting average, which Pedroia's currently exceeds, and the company is enshrined in Cooperstown or bound for it. The names should be familiar: Rogers Hornsby, Charlie Gehringer, Roberto Alomar and Craig Biggio. Each did it only once.
Skeptical Hometown Columnist of the Week
At the Diamondbacks-Dodgers matchup – The Clash of the Frightened – Arizona manager Bob Melvin had to remind himself one good thing about his woebegone team playing another. "Somebody's got to win tonight."
Certainly everybody in Phoenix had the same sense of disenchantment on their faces following the Dodgers winning the series' final two games by beating Brandon Webb and Dan Haren – and East Valley Tribune columnist Scott Bordow understands the D'backs' limitations.
After both Haren and Webb got shelled, the lead is down to 2½ games, and there's a whiff of panic in the air.
"After that first game, we were feeling pretty good about ourselves," first baseman Chad Tracy said after the Diamondbacks' 8-1 loss Sunday.
As we know by now, that feeling doesn't last for long.
It's a good thing the Dodgers can't take a couple of steps without tripping over themselves. Arizona is 2-7 in its last nine games, yet it's gained a half-game on Los Angeles.
That's some pennant race.
"You have two good teams going at it," Tracy said.
Well, that's debatable.
Matchup of the Week
Division series preview? Probably not, seeing as Boston would need to lose the wild card down the stretch, but it's an intriguing matchup anyway. The Angels get Chicago's three best pitchers this season, Gavin Floyd, John Danks and Mark Buehrle, while the White Sox face John Lackey, Joe Saunders and Jered Weaver. Chicago's offense, maligned even by manager Ozzie Guillen earlier this season, slugged .497 in August, with Paul Konerko back to his usual self (in part-time duty) and Carlos Quentin and Alexei Ramirez turning into stars. Even though Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye and Nick Swisher combined for only 62 hits all month, 41 went for extra bases. The Angels, on the other hand, packed the wallop of a toy hammer. Their .729 OPS last month was actually lower than their .730 mark for the season. And that includes Mark Teixeira's eight home runs and 1.143 OPS.
Playoff odds report
Adios, Yankees and Blue Jays. Toodle-oo, Marlins and Cardinals.
We're down to 11 potential playoff teams – OK, 12 if you really want to count the Rockies, but we're going to hold off a week before declaring them in it – and things are almost as muddled as last week, according to 10,000 rest-of-the-season simulations by AccuScore
The Angels, Cubs and Rays remain near-locks. The Red Sox and Brewers are closing in on clamping down the wild cards. But the AL Central, NL East and NL West remain crapshoots.
Last week's percentages are in parentheses.
Los Angeles Angels 100 percent (100 percent)
Tampa Bay Rays 98.2 percent (95.2 percent)
Boston Red Sox* 87.0 percent (59.2 percent)
Minnesota Twins 67.4 percent (77.8 percent)
Chicago White Sox 44.2 percent (55.6 percent)
Chicago Cubs 99.4 percent (98.3 percent)
Milwaukee Brewers* 94.6 percent (84.0 percent)
New York Mets 61.8 percent (66.9 percent)
Arizona Diamondbacks 55.4 percent (70.9 percent)
Los Angeles Dodgers 44.3 percent (29.4 percent)
Philadelphia Phillies 38.4 percent (31.4 percent)
* – Wild-card leader
"I ate the green monster. I tasted it, too. It was pretty nasty." – Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, after going face-first into the Angel Stadium wall – hence the lowercase green monster – and reaching over to rob Marlon Byrd of a home run.