Ah, the good old West. Call the Cubs Clint Eastwood, because they act like they own it. 19-5 is the best record in the NL against the West, with only the D'backs at 20-8 comparing and that's their division.
Normally I dread the west coast road trip, the one where you stay up late at night, uncomfortable turning off the TV because you don't know what will happen. Of course last night Chicagoland got to sleep a little easier with the Cubs shutting out the Giants until the 9th inning.
The Cubs needed this win and they need this series to gear up for the Cardinals and an interesting month of July. .500 for the month of June was enough to keep them in first place, as I predicted, but barely.
Let's break down July. The very beginning of this month will have the Cubs coming off some injuries with Reed Johnson coming back Thursday and Zambrano back Friday. By the game after the all-star break, I imagine the Cubs will have their lineup back at full-strength provided everyone else stays healthy, which means the Cubs could be set to get hot again. If there's a month for it, July is it. This was the month the Cubs pulled ahead last year. Let's hope the Cardinals or the Brewers aren't capable of doing that this year.
If the Cubs are to get hot in July, it'll have to happen on the road. 10 of 26 games this month will be away from Wrigley. The Cubs are 6 games under .500 on the road now. They face the Giants the remainder of this weekend, the Cardinals this weekend and then after the all-star break they face Houston, Arizona and Milwaukee on the road. So the Giants are the weakest opponents the Cubs will see, the rest are near .500 or better teams. That's a challenge. Good thing is that this road trip that ends Sunday is the longest of the month. Somehow, schedule makers were nice enough to the Cubs to break it up, but that's a fall-back cushion, not a boost.
At home, the Cubs will see Cincinnati, San Francisco again and then Florida later in the month. Depending on where Florida ends up by then, that's not too tough and should give the Cubs at least 7 wins.
What's critical, is that the Cubs will face all division foes beside Pittsburgh and will finally play St. Louis and Milwaukee in order to get them off their backs. July is actually the first critical month for the Cubs. In April and May, you just say that every game matters. Now you say it and they actually do.
So how can the Cubs make it through a challenging July? Last night's ball game was a great example.
When Mark DeRosa filled in for Aramis Ramirez in light of Ramirez's return home to La Republica, no one actually expected him to play like Aramis. A home run and a grand slam in the same game? Crazy. But that's exactly what the Cubs need-substitute superstars.
To keep the abundance of the offense going until Soriano returns, the Cubs are going to need some players to get hot. Lee and Ramirez have been flashy, tearing it up some games and looking pathetic in others. Without consistency there, the Cubs need other players to step back up. After a slow month, Geovany Soto looks like he could back up his all-star vote tally to begin July. Last night he was making really good contact which is very good to see. With Soto and DeRosa always somewhere between the 5 and 7 spot in the order, they are in prime position to make an impact and that will help ease the pitching of this team returning to form.
I don't need to say much about pitching. Every Cub fan knows it needs to get better. With the trade deadline at the end of July and someone likely getting brought into the rotation, this rotation just needs to gut it out a little longer to keep the Cubs in first. Getting Zambrano back is one thing, having him pitch like an ace is another. The Cubs have to have that, because Marquis and Gallagher aren't sure things on the mound and neither is Lilly despite being terrific last night. Ryan Dempster also has to win on the road. The Giants may well be his best opportunity to start, but with only 10 home games, Ryan won't get more than 2 home starts all month.
The bullpen issues need to get sorted out too. Carlos Marmol is going to be a huge piece of winning close games against good teams. If he's erratic, the Cubs will struggle to be .500 against those teams. The rest of the bullpen needs some fine-tuning, but Marmol is the centerpiece. If the Cubs do their job-a starter goes 7 innings and the offense provides a lead-Marmol is a part of that shutdown picture and he has to execute in those situations.
Face the truth, Cub fans: July will be really telling of this beloved ball club.