Cubs' manager Lou Piniella sermonized all spring about the importance of getting off to a good start.
Does an 11-6 record—which includes Sunday's 13-1 pasting of the Pirates and victories in 10 of the last 13 games—qualify?
Sure it does, especially in comparison to the Cubs' agonizing April in Piniella's first year.
Last April was so bad, players were wondering privately whether Piniella had lost touch. After the clubhouse finally got together, it took a furious finish (53-28) just to slip past the Brewers for the Central Division championship.
This April, things are serene.
"We're confident [after] last year," Derrek Lee said. "We have a year under our belt. We're all on the same page. Lou knows what he's doing and we know what to expect from Lou."
Piniella has recognized it.
"This team is playing with more confidence," he said. "Last April, after a 96-loss season, I'm not so sure they thought they could win. After playing like we did from the first of June on, they're more confident and expect better results."
How, and by how much, are the Cubs better than last April? Let's take a look:
•After 17 games last April, the Cubs were 7-10 and in fourth place;
•They won only 10 games all of last April;
•Last April, they were 4-9 at Wrigley Field, compared to 7-4 after Saturday.
Those are obvious statistics, but there also are subtle reminders of how much better the Cubs are this April. For instance:
•They already are 4-1 against left-handed starting pitchers, against whom they struggled last season when they were 19-24;
•They are 6-3 in games decided by one or two runs after a 1-9 start in that category a year ago, which included an 0-6 in one-run decisions.
"When you win close games, obviously your bullpen has a lot to do with it," Piniella said.
The bullpen is much more settled this April, especially with the almost-unhittable Carlos Marmol playing such a key role.
Last April, Floyd produced one homer, nine RBIs, nine runs scored, a .281 batting average and .305 on-base percentage.
In 17 big-league games, Fukudome has one homer, nine RBIs, 13 runs scored, a .317 batting average and .442 on-base percentage.
•Oh, and let's not forget about Lee, who gave the Cubs a 2-0, first-inning lead Saturday with a home run.
It was his seventh home run, a level he didn't reach until after last season's All-Star break. He is only one RBI short of last April's total of 16.
One of the constants in the past two Aprils has been Jason Marquis, who won his first game of the season Saturday with six convincing innings of one-run ball.
Last April, he was 3-1, but his ERA over those two months is a sparkling 2.87.
"We have the ability to do some great things," Marquis said. "Barring real serious injuries, we can do some good things. We believe in ourselves and have each other's back … and trust each other."