As expected, Cubs prove surprising contenders

On Baseball

June 14, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The Chicago Cubs glowed like a super nova -- winning 10 straight games to climb to the top of the National League Central standings -- and raised the question again.

Are they good enough to get to the World Series for the first time since 1945?

The answer is not clear. The Cubs were a popular dark-horse pick in the preseason because of the off-season acquisition of several key veteran players. They would appear to be an even more popular pick now, since the emergence of pitching phenom Kerry Wood and the re-emergence of veteran Steve Trachsel have solidified a pretty good starting rotation.

No sense changing dark horses in the middle of the stream.

Those of us who said at the outset that the Cubs would be the surprise team of 1998 cannot be surprised that they are very much in the hunt for a division title or a wild-card playoff berth. But the lengthy winning streak that created so much excitement in Chicago the past two weeks also is just the thing to give long-suffering Cubs fans a case of -- pardon the expression -- performance anxiety.

The club won 10 straight games. It's not going to get any better than that, and one day later, the Cubs were back looking up at the first-place Houston Astros.

The winning streak was impressive, but it also was largely a one-man show. Outfielder Sammy Sosa, whose spectacular offensive and defensive statistics have justified the 1997 decision to make him one of baseball's highest-paid players, hit 11 home runs in 10 games to carry the Cubs offense through a long and productive 11-game homestand at Wrigley Field.

He's a great player, but that isn't going to happen very often. The Cubs are going to require a more balanced attack if they are going to prevent the Houston Astros from defending their division title. The wild-card race also will be a challenge, with three teams likely to finish well above .500 in the NL West and the New York Mets playing well in the NL East.

Manager Jim Riggleman has to be pleased, however, with the depth of his starting rotation. Wood is getting most of the attention -- and rightfully so -- but Trachsel, Mark Clark, Kevin Tapani and Jeremi Gonzalez have performed as well as a unit as any NL rotation except the gallery of stars in Atlanta.

"I like having reliable people," said Riggleman recently. "I kind of knock on wood saying this, but these guys don't miss starts, they go every fifth day, they do their work between starts."

He might even have enough depth to weather a pitching injury or two, with veteran left-hander Terry Mulholland and right-hander Kevin Foster waiting in the bullpen for a chance to re-enter the rotation.

Are the Cubs good enough to get deep into October? Maybe, but maybe is more than Cubs fans have had in June for quite some time.

The Big Cat

Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey may be the premier home run hitters in baseball, but wouldn't it be something if soon-to-be-37-year-old Andres Galarraga joined them in their pursuit of the single-season home run record.

Galarraga entered the weekend with 25 home runs in 66 games for the Atlanta Braves, a pace that would carry him to 61 homers -- Roger Maris country -- over the course of a full season, but he's keeping his goals within reason.

"You never know what's going to happen in the second half, but the way it's going right now, I'm shooting for 50, no question," Galarraga said.

The club record is 47, held by Eddie Mathews (1953) and Hank Aaron (1971). Galarraga's personal best also is 47, set in 1996 in the thin air of Colorado.

"That's the record, and that's my record," he said. "I'll take 48."

Martinez pounded

Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez has given up four home runs in each of his past two starts, most recently surrendering two to Galarraga (Nos. 24 and 25) and one each to Chipper Jones and Ryan Klesko in a 10-6 victory over the Braves on Wednesday, but there apparently is no cause for concern.

Martinez has been struggling to throw his changeup in the strike zone, but the velocity of his fastball remains consistent. He has given up 12 homers in his past 20 innings, but he is 7-2 and continues to live up to the huge contract he received from the Red Sox over the winter.

Bad news for Baltimore

Red Sox starter Steve Avery apparently has found the secret to renewed success. He has dropped into a three-quarters delivery, and the results have been telling.

He pitched seven shutout innings on Monday for his second consecutive victory and clearly has been reinvigorated by the mechanical change. His velocity has improved, and he has said goodbye to the straight fastball that was his undoing the past couple of years.

"I'm getting movement on the ball I never had before," he said.

That could spell trouble for the Orioles, who had hoped to take advantage of the Red Sox's questionable pitching depth to overcome a seven-game deficit in the wild-card race. If Avery is back to stay, the Red Sox will be difficult to catch.

Self-recrimination

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