Perhaps the low point of Lou Piniella's term as Cubs manager came one year ago Friday at Wrigley Field, after a 9-0 loss to Florida left them seven games under .500 and gasping for air.
Piniella's club held a players-only meeting in which the manager was the main topic, leading to an ESPN report that he'd "lost the team."
Carlos Zambrano punched Michael Barrett in the dugout the next game. Piniella kicked some dirt on an umpire while being ejected the day after, and the rest is history. The Cubs went on to win the National League Central, and carried that success over into 2008.
And after coming back in the late innings again to beat Colorado 8-4 Thursday night, the Cubs were riding a four-game winning streak and had baseball's best record at 33-21.
"We expect to win and [we] go out to win," Derrek Lee said. "We're just living up to our own expectations."
Lee hit his 13th homer and brought home the tying run in the seventh when reliever Matt Herges fielded his topper and made an errant throw to first, hitting Lee in the leg as Alfonso Soriano scored from third. Geovany Soto's sacrifice fly gave the Cubs a 5-4 lead, and they added three insurance runs in the eighth.
"Everybody rolling, doing the little stuff," Soto said. "Bring it on."
With June on the horizon, things are looking exceedingly bright for Piniella and his Cubs. Instead of wondering if his players were about to revolt against him, like last year at this time, Piniella's biggest challenge is keeping Chicago from getting all "giggly" over its Cubs.
Sellout crowds are the norm at Wrigley. Three Cubs are leading in National League All-Star balloting, and viewership is up significantly. Wednesday night's 2-1, 10-inning win over the Dodgers was the highest-rated Cubs game in May on WGN-TV since a game in New York on May 23, 1991. That was the second game of the forgettable Jim Essian tenure, after he replaced the fired Don Zimmer when Zimmer gave his bosses an ultimatum to extend his contract.
While much has happened to the Cubs in the ensuing 17 years, their early-season success, increased interest due to the centennial of their last World Series championship, and Piniella's own popularity have helped make them must-see TV in 2008. Meanwhile, late-inning comebacks the last two nights have helped instill a "What, me worry?" attitude in the Cubs' clubhouse.
"If we get down, we have that feeling that we can come from behind and win a baseball game," Piniella said. "It's a good feeling."
While Piniella credited Jason Marquis for giving them "a chance to win it," he yanked his starter with one out and the bases loaded in the sixth with the Cubs up 3-1. Willy Taveras tied it with a two-run, opposite-field single off Neal Cotts. Colorado took the lead off Michael Wuertz in the seventh before Herges and Taylor Buchholz threw it away.
It's been quite a wild ride since that lost weekend of one year ago, but Piniella insisted having the best record in the majors on May 30 has no real meaning.
"You tell me that with a week to go in the season, then it means a heck of a lot," he said. "Right now we're jockeying for position. That's it."
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